Beijings low-key launch of its first aircraft carrier on Wednesday was aimed at allaying fears of the United States and regional neighbours over the vessels impact on the balance of power in the Pacific. However, even Chinese officials admit the as-yet-unnamed craft remains a warship at its heart. Labeled a scientific research and training vessel by Beijing, the craft is the result of years long retrofitting of the Soviet-era, Ukrainian-built Varyag. It is expected to be named the Shi Lang after a 17th-century admiral who reclaimed Taiwan for the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but this wont be confirmed until its official maiden voyage. As the silhouette of her distinctive sloped runway crossed the horizon and headed out to sea early on Wednesday - authorities have forbid navigation in an area of sea 13.25 nautical miles wide and 22 nautical miles long in the northern Yellow Sea and Liao Dong Bay from August 10 to 14 - decades of speculation over the crafts significance showed no sign of abating. While some argue the carrier, the first of three believed to be under construction in China, is so technically inferior to the USs behemoth carriers that it is more a threat to its own sailors than other nations, others see it as menacing statement of intent over Chinas claims to Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea. More realistically, its immediate tasks will be boosting the morale of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), escorting cargo ships through pirated waters and anti-terrorism and emergency relief operations, according to a senior captain and director of Naval Research Institute of the Peoples Liberation Army writing in the China Daily. However, he adds, Since an aircraft carrier is a warship, it has a very important military value and can be used as a deterrent against other countries ... There is no doubt aircraft carriers will continue to play a decisive role in sea battles. Some other countries have forcibly occupied some of Chinas islands and their surrounding waters, and other maritime resources. United States military officials mostly agree with the PLAN estimations of the carriers future roles, even suggesting there is scope for joint operations. The Chinese will learn from the Shi Lang and design a carrier best suited to provide 'organic air capability for PLA Navy surface forces operating beyond the range of Chinese land-based tactical aircraft, Eric A McVadon, Rear Admiral of the US Navy (Retired), told Asia Times Online. I would like to see the US move toward greater cooperation that could lead to sea-lane protection operations with the PLA Navy. I have often suggested the goal, which we should work toward, of USN and PLAN combined operations including a moderate-capability PLAN aircraft carrier for sea-lane security (such as the anti-piracy operations off Somalia), said McVadon. However, other observers say the prospect of joint policing of areas like shipping lanes is unlikely, as the US Navy (USN) and PLAN are competing for carrier presence, particularly in the Pacific and South China Sea. The US currently operates 11 carriers. It would be unlikely that the USN and PLAN would both put their carrier at one specific sea lane together, except for a photo op, says James Bussert, co-author of PLAN Combat Systems Technology 1949-2010. Since the Chinese Navys main mission is control and sovereignty over South China Sea and waters within 200 miles of China, a prime goal is exclusion of our carriers, as they demonstrated when the USS Kitty Hawk tried to operate within range of Beijing after the South Korean ship [Cheonan] was sunk last March by a North Korean sub. PLAN and USN warships can operate together in joint exercises as in Somalia, but the Chinese carrier is not intending to compete against our carriers. They do not seek world-wide ocean responsibilities, as the USSR tried to do. The base needed to fulfill these responsibilities will be military facilities China is building on its southern coast, said Bussert. Large shelters, hardened ammunition depots and base support infrastructure being built for the last several years near Sanya on southern Hainan Island, will support Chinese aircraft carriers for South China Sea and Indian Ocean operations. Associated battle support group ships will also be based there. The Varyag will be mainly a training platform for crew and pilots of the following new construction carriers, said Bussert. The 302-meter long carrier, which boasts 10-barreled Gatling gun Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) in comparison to the US Navys six-barreled Phalanx CIWS guns, and an estimated 12 J-15 Flying Shark carrier-based fighters, dwarfs the French navys flagship Charles de Gaulle (261 meters) and the British Invincible-class aircraft carriers (209 meters). Despite doubts over the Chinese carriers construction and usefulness in a conflict with Taiwan, Taipei has wasted no time in responding to the ships launch, swiftly unveiling its own carrier killer missile. The Taiwanese military on Wednesday displayed a poster of a model Hsiung Feng (Brave Wind) III (HF-3) anti-ship missile with its backdrop a large burning aircraft carrier with a similar sloping ski jump runway to the Chinese carrier. While next to the burning carrier were the Chinese characters for carrier killer, the Taipei Times reported that its 120-kilogram payload would be unlikely to sink an aircraft carrier. Asia Times Online