Fears that China is seeking to acquire an aircraft carrier have been rekindled by Ukraine's sale of the incomplete former Soviet navy carrier Varyag to a Chinese-linked trading company based in Macau.

The 302m-long hull was sold in March to a Macau shell company, Chong Lot Tourist and Amusement Agency for a reported $20 million. Authorities in the Portuguese-administered enclave have rejected an apparent application to use the ship as a floating hotel.

Asian military sources suspect that the Macau company is little more than a front for mainland Chinese interests, which intend to tow the Varyag to China for examination and eventual scrapping. While it is unlikely that the ship will ever be commissioned as an aircraft carrier, a study of the ship's structural design, which includes a 12¹ ski jump for short take-off aircraft operations, would be of value should Beijing pursue its stated goal of acquiring its own carrier.

"There is not a chance in the world anyone would want to take it on, the cost would be prohibitive," says a Western defence source. The material condition of the 10-year-old hull has deteriorated since work at the Nikolayev South shipyard on the Black Sea was stopped in 1995. Many of the carrier's propulsion and weapon fixtures have since been removed.

The carrier's sale price is reported to be three times its scrap tonnage value, "-which means some 60% of the cost is to acquire knowledge," estimates one observer.

Source: Flight International