By Adam Levine
China's refurbished Russian aircraft carrier was snapped at sea in this exclusive image taken by DigitalGlobe's satellite. The Varyag aircraft carrier image was grabbed while the carrier was on its second sea trial in the Yellow Sea on December 8, 2011, according to DigitalGlobe Analysis Center. The location is approximately 100 kilometers south-southeast of the port of Dalian.
The carrier had previously been seen in dry dock.
The aircraft carrier is a partially refurbished version of the old Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov Class and was left over from the Cold War. A Macao-based casino group initially arranged for the purchase but ulimately it was taken over by the Chinese military, according to a Stratfor analysis which posits they were likely the original buyer. (WATCH A VIDEO OF THE STRATFOR/DIGITAL GLOBE ANALYSIS HERE)
While its appearance has gotten a lot of attention, Stratfor notes "its actions seem threatening long before there is a capability to match" because it will be years before China can add additional carriers to keep one active at all times. The carrier also appears to lack surface-to-surface missiles and other air defense systems, according to Strafor, and the intention seems to be to use the Varyag as a training vehicle.
"The focus on naval development, which goes far beyond the work on the Varyag, reflects less a desire to be considered one of the “big” players than a response to a fundamental threat to its economic system, and thus to social and political stability," Stratfor observes.
China's rapid growth has led to a heavy dependence on resources that must be shipped in via the sea.
"This vulnerability of resources and market access forced China to make the costly decision to rapidly pursue increased naval development, to become more assertive in its neighboring seas (particularly in the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea), and to expand port development agreements around the Indian Ocean basin," according to Stratfor.
As Stratfor notes in its analysis, China has only a few options: depend on U.S. to keep sea lanes open and operational, find land routes to supplement maritime routes or "try to develop a counterweight to defend China's maritime supply routes."