I think that David Axe makes a good point in bringing up all of the navies surrounding PLAN that have carrier(s) or aviation capable flattops. At this point, PLAN is just at the start of its blue water naval strategy. Due to the increasing pressure on PLAN to defend Chinese interests around the world, PLAN is finally getting into the business of building a blue water fleet. Due to its lack of experience in naval aviation and lack of contacts/training with countries that have naval aviation tradition, PLAN will be starting from a very backward position. As stated in the Wired article and by most PLAN observers, Varyag will be a training carrier once it goes into service. One can see the amount of resources that China has placed in its carrier program by the amount of resources spent on Varyag, the carrier simulation facility in Wuhan, the different take-off/landing facilities around the country and the numerous indigenous naval aviation program under way. Just from the latest photos of Varyag alone, we can see several close-in weapon systems that have not appeared in any previous PLAN ships.
We can see the new RAM-like HQ-10 SAM installed in 3 different positions on Varyag
A host of new sensors + 052C MFRs on the oversized island.
The new HQ-10 SAM + 12 barrel ASW rocket launcher + new 10/11 30mm barrel CIWS + 18 barrel multi-purpose rocket launcher
And here is a list of possible ongoing naval aviation programs. First, we have the mysterious fix-winged naval AEW program, which is probably aimed for the first domestic carrier.
And then we have the domestic Z-8 AEW program that is now going through trials with PLAN naval aviation.
Which is mixed in with 9 imported Ka-31 AEW helicopters. It's hard to say how PLAN will use the two platforms at this point, but I would imagine seeing both on Varyag + first couple of domestic carriers. I do see PLAN going toward the USN model in the future and use strictly fix-winged AEW assets.
And finally, they also have the J-15 and JL-9H program going. Due to its range and payload, J-15 could be designed to perform more than just air defense duties of Su-33. Think of Super hornets and all of its different uses in USN.
So, I would say that there are many new weapon systems and technologies developed in China for its naval program. On top of all of the new hardware been developed, the process of training competent carrier operation crew is just as arduous. So far, the only major cooperation agreement they have been able to make is the one with the Brazilian navy. Therefore, China has a lot of stuff to learn over the next 20 years. Varyag will be a training carrier once it goes into service, but it will also be an operational carrier once the sailors accumulate some years of experience. The same will be the case for China's first domestic carriers.
When I look at the entire PLAN modernization, I really think that the carrier program has trailed most of the other programs. Over the past 5 years, one can already see an increasing need for a Chinese blue water fleet with its increasing energy security concerns from Africa/Middle East + its dependence on world commerce + the number of Chinese nationals working in African/Middle Eastern/Pacific Island countries. China currently gets a free ride from US Navy for energy security and safety of its merchant ships, but it really has no trust in USN. A good number of Chinese people in and outside of the military thinks that US is trying to hold China down. And when one looks at the extremely vocal China threat group in Washington, it's easy to see why they would get this view. So, I think that even though China already has a clear need for a carrier, this program has trailed the rest of PLAN modernization for numerous reasons. And I think that as China becomes even more dependent on world commerce in the coming years, the need for a blue water fleet will become more apparent (even if it will make many neighbours uncomfortable). On top of that, China sees East Asia and Southeast Asia as its backyard and wants to become the big dog here that keeps order. It cannot do so with a green water fleet. You are seeing more comments/actions from China in this direction, even though they will not say this openly.
One part I think David Axe was really wrong on was the assertion that Varyag will be defenseless. The PLAN naval modernization/expansion have been going on for the past 15 years. If anything, PLAN already has the necessary escorts for the first carrier and is in the process of building many more advanced escorts as shown in the photos below. And the recent Gulf of Aden missions provided PLAN with an opportunity to try these ships out for long periods in blue waters, so they will be ready by the time Varyag becomes operational.
The first three photos are the 3rd, 4th and 5th 052Cs currently under construction in JN shipyard
This next photo is the 6th 054A currently under construction in the HD shipyard
And here is the 6th 054A from HP shipyard that just got launched.
The other importantly part of China's increased blue water ambitions is the need for oversea "places" that PLAN can dock in the future for supplies. Here is a Jamestown article on the issue of logistical supply places that are emerging from the Gulf of Aden missions. Now, I do think that China will need a couple of oversea naval bases in the future to protect its commerce and such, but it is not at that point yet.
Most recently after the Osama killing, a lot of noises came out of Pakistan asking China to have a naval base in Gwadar. Here is an Asia Times article on the subject of Gwadar naval bases. You can see that China is punting on this issue right now, because it does not make sense for China to have a base there at the moment.
At the same time, I did find this other article regarding recent meeting between China and Burma to be far more interesting.
According to official sources in Naypyidaw, Chinese officials have repeatedly raised the issue of mobilizing its naval forces in Burmese territorial waters in recent months amid the superpower's increasing interests in the country, most notably the Sino-Burmese oil and gas pipelines, and the Chinese navy's activities in the Indian Ocean, particularly patrolling against Somali pirates.
Chinese officials are not suggesting a Chinese navy base in Burma, but having the permission to dock their warships at Burma's ports while they are patrolling the Indian Ocean and Somalia, said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity. The issue is still under discussion.
However, Burmese military sources have said they believe that China is more concerned about protecting the strategic port of Kyaukpyu, a multi-billion project that Beijing financed.
After the pipelines are finished in 2013, they are expected to have the capacity to transfer to Yunnan Province more than 80 percent of China's imported oil from the Middle East and Africa, as well as Chinese-purchased natural gas from Burma's Shwe Gas Field.
Shwe Field is currently Burma's largest gas reserve with an estimated 7.0 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It was discovered in 2004 and is likely to be operational by 2013. The Burmese regime chose to sell the natural gas from Shwe Offshore Field to China over another energy-hungry neighbor, India, in 2007, a move that consolidated the junta's position as a valued ally of Beijing.
The pipeline project includes upgrading the airport on Ramree Island where Kyaukpyu is located. Residents of Ramree Island said that they have seen not only Chinese workers, but also Chinese military personnel in recent years on the island.
Chinese interests include the protection of oil tankers. Beijing has sent warships to Somali waters in the past two years, a maneuver that marked the superpower's the first ever naval mobilization outside the Pacific Ocean.
Returning from a counter-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean in August 2010, two warships, the Guangzhou and the Chaohu, docked at Thilawa Port, near Rangoon, for a five-day visit. Burmese and Chinese state media reported at the time.
From this article, you can see all of the Chinese energy and economic interest in this region and why China would want to have a blue water navy that can operate in this region. When one look at the narrow Strait of Malacca where much of China's energy and commerce shipping flows through, it becomes clear why China would also want to build an energy pipeline that would bypass that. In that region, China would not only be under the mercy of USN, but also under the mercy or threat of Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. That is quite a scary thought for the supposedly next super-power of the world. In the increasingly bitter confrontations between China and its neighbors over South China Sea, I think China will need to get back to building trusting relations with its southern neighbors while also continue to build an effective blue water navy.
So as Varyag is about to start sea trials, we see the shift of a nation from enclosed and poor to more prosperous and reliant on the world. The need for a blue water navy comes from China's need to protect its oversea interests + its people's desires for a strong nation. China will not become a blue water navy overnight, but would need years to develop competent carrier operations. It stills has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same breath to the Seventh Fleet. That's a scary thought for a nation that's more dependent than any other nations for safe and open sea lanes. As we observe the formation of China's blue water ambitions, I hope more people see if from this view point rather than the view point that China is about to take over the world.