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The ship

Among aircraft carriers – those "shock and awe" icons of modern global power projection – China's Shi Lang is modest, secondhand, lacks any warplanes and is almost laughable compared with America's leviathans.

A travel agency, acting as a front for Beijing, bought the rusting hulk – a still-unfinished Soviet-era carrier called Varyeg – in 1998, 10 years after she was launched in the dying days of the Cold War for a paltry $20-million.

Its purported use was as a floating casino in Macao. In early 1998, she lacked engines, a rudder, and much of her operating systems, and was put up for auction. It took nearly two years, including a near-disaster adrift in a gale, to tow it from the Black Sea to China's naval base at Dalian where, for a decade, it has been the world's worst-kept naval secret while being laboriously refurbished.

Shi Lang set sail, finally under its own power, on Wednesday. Those sea trials are only the beginning of what will likely be a long, slow learning program as Chinese fighter pilots train for the toughest flying of all – landing a warplane at night on the pitching deck of a carrier.

Even if China has managed to cure the chronic problems that plagued Russia's aircraft carriers – especially the notoriously unreliable engines – the Shi Lang will only put China among a motley bunch of middle-powers with medium-sized and not-very-impressive carriers. India, Italy, Thailand, Brazil, Russia, France and Britain all possess one or two medium-sized carriers.

A growing naval power

Not since China's Ming dynasty sent a huge armada as far as the Persian Gulf – half a century before Columbus "found" the Caribbean – has Beijing flexed its military muscle globally. But as befits an emerging superpower, deploying an aircraft carrier and unveiling an ambitious shipbuilding program to follow it up with three far larger vessels, China is laying the foundation for the kind of power projection that only the United States currently possesses.

Shi Lang, named for the great Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan, is just the latest signal that China intends to be a global player.

Beijing has put a man in space, launched a satellite-killing missile, and is slowly building a "blue water" navy capable of operating far from home.

Two Chinese warships have been deployed off Somalia as part of an international anti-piracy patrol. That's the first time China's navy has ventured to Africa since the Ming Dynasty.

Beijing is a long way from parking an aircraft carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf, where an American carrier perpetually cruises to ensure that Tehran doesn't mess with the steady stream of supertankers in the Straits of Hormuz, sating the world's thirst for oil.

For half-a-century, no navy, not even the Soviet Union's during the Cold War, has rivalled America's huge, powerful blue-water fleet, built around 11 massive, nuclear-armed and powered aircraft carriers, each packing more punch than the air forces of most nations. Each of them projects unrivalled firepower without seeking permission or needing bases around the globe.

But with Shi Lang, China has embarked, rather like America's Great White Fleet did a century ago, on a long naval voyage that will rival and perhaps eclipse the ruling naval power of the day.

South China Sea

Busy trade routes, rich fishing grounds, vast untapped oil and gas reserves as well as a host of nasty, overlapping claims and ill-tempered disputes all make the South China Sea a potential flash point.

China, already the gorilla of the squabbling bunch, hardly needs an aging carrier to push around its smaller rivals. But as with the ongoing dispute with Taiwan and the sometimes nasty rivalry with Japan, China's burgeoning naval power will play out in the South China Sea. Overlapping claims, some staked on tiny islets, embroil China in disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

And just as it regards the Northwest Passage (claimed on shaky grounds as "internal waters" by Canada) as an international strait, Washington has served notice that it has a "national interest" in keeping open the sea lanes of the South China Sea.

China has bluntly warned the U.S. to butt out, but the risks of confrontation remain. A decade ago, China lost a warplane after it collided with a lumbering U.S. surveillance aircraft that made an emergency landing on Hainan, a Chinese island, where the crew was detained and interrogated for 11 days.

"An aircraft carrier is a symbol of the power of our navy," Xu Guangyo, a retired senior Chinese general told the BBC.

"It's also a symbol of deterrence. It's like saying, 'Don't mess with me. Don't think you can bully me.' "

At this stage, that message is aimed mainly at the nations ringing the South China Sea. A few carriers hence, it may be meant for the United States.

What it means for the U.S.

With 11 super-carriers, each one carrying 90 warplanes and capable of round-the-clock continuous operations, the U.S. remains the unchallenged global naval power. So dominant is America's control of the seas that the arrival of China's first carrier poses little challenge. But the Shi Lang heralds a new era and may, ironically, make it easier for the U.S. Navy to win tough battles in a budget-slashing Congress.

Even, bigger, more powerful 'Ford' class carriers – at $5-billion each – are on the U.S. navy's wish list. The first is being built. But the Navy eventually wants to replace all its current carriers with new ones. China, with its array of new weapons – stealth fighters, huge ship-killer missiles, and now, its own carriers – may provide the reason.

Beijing is "developing capabilities that are very maritime-focused, maritime- and air-focused, and in many ways, very much focused on us," Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this summer.

China's growing military prowess has developed a new urgency in Washington, driven as much by the prospect of cuts in defence spending as any real arms race.

But some suggest Sinophobes are overplaying their hand.

"Bottom line: don't get worked up about the alleged 'blue water navy,' " China is building, writes Michael Moran, a geostrategy analyst for Roubini Global Economics.

"Partisans of one kind or another may deploy Red Scare tactics about the carrier, but there are an awful lot of better things for Americans – and their allies – to worry about."