China's first domestically built aircraft carrier has reportedly begun its final sea trials before commissioning, after which it will take its place as a centerpiece in the country's growing blue-water navy.
The carrier, which was launched last April and had its maiden voyage in May, has yet to be named but carries the official designation of Type 001A.
The vessel's design is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier. China's first carrier, the Liaoning, was originally built in the Soviet Union in the final years of the Cold War. It was purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and refurbished at the Dalian naval shipyard in northeastern China. The Liaoning went into active service in 2016.
Both Chinese carriers are thought to displace about 65,000 metric tons fully loaded, which makes them considerably smaller than the 10 U.S. Nimitz-class carriers, the largest in active service.
The South China Morning Post reports that the new carrier "headed out to the Yellow Sea two days after a Type 055 guided-missile destroyer, the region's most advanced and biggest destroyer, and the carrier's likely escort, also started its maiden sea trial."
Military analysts quoted by the Post said the vessel's second and final sea trial could last anywhere from six months to a year, after which it would be handed over to the China's navy for commissioning by October 2019 for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
"This time the focus will be on testing the endurance of the new aircraft carrier's propulsion system. The communications, command, damage control, lift operations and weapon systems will also be [examined]," Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, the Post reports separately that the Liaoning was undergoing a refit to upgrade its command center on the ship's "island" conning tower.
"According to Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie, the new structures are likely to be similar to those on the country's second aircraft carrier, the Type 001A," the Post says.
The latest Chinese aircraft carrier starts sea trials amid growing tensions between the U.S. Navy and the naval wing of the People's Liberation Army, particularly in and around the South China Sea.
In a meeting in June between Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader reportedly said his country would not yield "one inch" of the South China Sea.
The Financial Times reports that the meeting was meant for Mattis to deliver a "medium tough" warning to the Chinese leader that the U.S. is not happy about Beijing's militarization of several artificial islands in the region.
China has competing claims with its maritime neighbors over several island chains in the South China and East China seas.
China is one of a handful of countries that operate aircraft carriers.