China's first aircraft carrier sailed out of the northeastern port of Dailan for sea trials Wednesday morning, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported. China has spent nearly a decade refurbishing the 67,000-ton, 300-meter (1,000-foot) ship, begun by the former Soviet Union but never completed.
Xinhua quoted military sources as saying the trials would be brief, and the carrier would return to Dailan for further refits.
China once renounced aircraft carriers as tools of imperialism, but has been developing a blue-water navy in recent years, along with air power to back it up.
It purchased the rusting, gutted shell of the Varyag, the Soviet-begun carrier now under way, from Ukraine in 1998.
Only a handful of other nations operate aircraft carriers - and only the United States, with 11, has more than two in service.
In a opinion piece posted on Xinhua, the commentator defends the carrier as necessary defensive step and insists China "will never seek hegemony."
"As a matter of fact, it is noteworthy that China was the only permanent UN Security Council member state that did not own an aircraft carrier. In Asia alone, India and Thailand have already owned aircraft carriers," writer Wei Jianhua said. "China's need to defend its long coastline and enormous maritime interests is basically behind the country's resolve to develop aircraft carriers. China has also learnt a lesson from its modern history of humiliation that backwardness leaves one vulnerable to attack."
The US military begs to differ, warning in its annual report to Congress on China's military that the carrier is part of a larger strategy by the People's Liberation Army to extend China's "operational reach" and provides "an enhanced extended range power projection capability and could alter regional balances, disrupting the delicate status quo" in the South China Sea.
But the Pentagon tried to play down today's trial, saying the Chinese are a long way off from utilizing the carrier.
"China has initiated a land-based training program for pilots and carrier aircraft, but it will take several years for the PLA to effectively operate aircraft from a carrier," spokeswoman Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde told CNN.