06/08/2011 03:51 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

China's First Aircraft Carrier Nearly Ready For Launch

A top Chinese military official has confirmed that Beijing is building its first aircraft carrier, described as a "symbol of a great nation" which could reportedly set sail within weeks.

As the Guardian is reporting, the vessel is actually a formerly defunct Soviet-era carrier formerly named the Varyag that was purchased in 1998 from Ukraine by a Hong Kong company. Though it was originally proposed as a floating casino to be docked off the shores of Macau, the ship has reportedly been upgraded at China's Dalian naval shipyard with combat sensors and defensive weapons and painted in the colors of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The 990-foot carrier, which the BBC calls "an unmistakeable sign of China's expanding military and its desire to project Chinese power further beyond its borders than ever before," was originally constructed in the 1980s for the Soviet navy but was never completed and sat rusting in dockyards in Ukraine. Qi Jianguo, assistant to the chief of the PLA's general staff, is quoted by the AFP as saying the ship would not enter other nations' territories, in accordance with Beijing's defensive military strategy. "All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers -- they are symbols of a great nation," he said. Later, he added, "It would have been better for us if we acted sooner in understanding the oceans and mapping out our blue-water capabilities earlier."

Other officials echoed those sentiments. "It's also a symbol of deterrence," General Xu Guangyu, who used to serve in the PLA's headquarters and is now retired, told the BBC. "It's like saying, 'Don't mess with me. Don't think you can bully me.' So it's normal for us to want a carrier. I actually think it's strange if China doesn't have one."

As GlobalPost notes, China is involved in a number of marine territorial disputes with its neighbors, including around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and around the islands claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands and by Japan as the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea.