West voices its concerns over big ship sales

AS IT sells off its flagship aircraft carriers through a government website, Britain is finding enthusiastic interest from an unexpected group - Chinese businessmen potentially keen enough to outbid any rivals.

However, some Western strategists suspect the real agenda might be more to do with Beijing's growing naval ambitions, that the vessels might be stripped for construction secrets or simply pressed into the service of the People's Liberation Army Navy.

The Royal Navy decommissioned HMS Invincible and her sister ship Ark Royal as part of a wider round of austerity measures, listing them for disposal alongside unused printer cartridges, old office furniture and outdated uniforms.

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Both ships attracted interest from buyers wanting to sail them to China to be used as floating commercial venues.

While some foreign warships purchased by Chinese businesses have genuinely been used as leisure centres and night clubs, others are believed to have entered military hands.

Such worries may have already helped stop one potential UK carrier purchase and could stymie another.

"It is very difficult to gauge what is going on here," said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. "The links between Chinese businessmen and the Communist Party are always somewhat ambiguous.

"The Chinese have a reputation for playing a long game, as well as for reverse engineering … It is (also] possible that they could (aim to] refit Ark Royal as a helicopter carrier.

"Such a ship would certainly be a useful vessel in terms of power projection in the South China Sea and possibly against Taiwan."

China's defence ministry declined to comment, while the buyers have been keen to stress their independence from government. But experts say China's first aircraft carrier, due to start sea trials in the coming weeks, started life as the Varyag, an unfinished Soviet warship lying in Ukraine.

Chinese buyers bought her in the late 1990s, ostensibly to be used as a casino in Macau.

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In reality, she spent years being refitted in naval dockyards and some suspect a similar fate could be in line for any purchased British ships. But even if the Chinese buyers were being honest in their ultimate intentions of the ships, most intelligence and security experts said they would expect the ships to be given a thorough going over first by China's military.

"There is some merit in acquiring Ark Royal, a successful design, if you want to build your own carriers and only have a badly designed and frankly clapped out vessel like the Varyag to go on," said a London-based naval analyst, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

"There are limits to its value: all the sensitive kit such as sonar, radar and communications will be taken off. What you would do is get an insight into naval construction techniques."

But with China, and particularly its rich new elite, growing in self-confidence, some analysts suspect the primary appeal for business buyers is simply the kudos of owning a former Western warship and perhaps to curry official favour.

British-based Chinese businessman Lam kin-Bong told the South China Morning Post in January he was bidding 5m for Invincible to use the ship as an international school in a marina in Guangdong.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) refused to comment on individual bids, but naval experts say that figure was likely considerably higher than offers based on its scrap value.

However, Britain chose to sell the ship to breakers in Nato member Turkey instead, with experts and insiders saying potential military usage likely put ministers off the China option.