TIANJIN, China — On a windswept pier at the Binhai theme park, tourists board an aged Russian aircraft carrier, the Kiev, and imagine what it would be like if China had such a symbol of maritime might.
Along dimly lit passageways, they peer into compartments to see mannequins of Russian sailors loading rockets into firing tubes, manning radars and even entering a sauna.
On deck, simulated jet fighters rest on the rolling tarmac along a runway.
China remains the only major global power without aircraft carriers in its fleet. For years, military leaders have weighed the pride that such vessels would bring the nation with the costs and complexity of operating the giant ships, continually postponing a decision. But now public sentiment is running strongly in favor of launching a program to build aircraft carriers, and some military experts say construction may be inevitable.
"Actually it has almost been decided that the Chinese navy will build carriers," said Xu Guangyu, an analyst and the director of the government-backed China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
China's military has grown at double-digit rates for nearly two decades and now wields supersonic missiles and nuclear submarines. When it comes to aircraft carriers, though, it's not so much military leaders voicing an operational need as an impatient public demanding construction, experts said.
"There's a feeling among the Chinese public that their nation is a great power, and great powers have aircraft carriers," said Andrew S. Erickson, a civilian scholar at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the Naval War College in Rhode Island. "We've seen grass-roots campaigns that say, 'Everyone contribute some money so we can have an aircraft carrier.' "
Top People's Liberation Army officers voiced interest in building aircraft carriers to visiting senior U.S. military commanders this year, peppering them with questions.
"We said to them, essentially, 'Knock yourselves out. It ain't as easy as it looks,' " Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in July. "They acknowledged that and said, 'We reserve the right to develop aircraft carriers if we so choose.' They said to us there is no more prominent and visible signal of a nation's resolve and might than an aircraft carrier coming into a port."
China already has three decommissioned aircraft carriers, all bought from Russia. Military engineers dissected two to see how they worked, then moored them as tourist attractions. The third, the Varyag, is at a secret military base in Dalian, on the Yellow Sea.
For an entry fee of about $14.70, tourists can board the Kiev, docked at the Binhai district near Tianjin, 100 miles southeast of Beijing, and listen to tour guides walk their way through the ship's bowels. Each deck has souvenir stands.
A second Russian aircraft carrier, the Minsk, is docked in Shenzhen, the booming port city near Hong Kong, where tourists get a strong sales pitch aboard.
"In the middle of the Minsk was this kind of shrine to the history of aircraft carriers," recalled Richard Fisher, a U.S.-based specialist on the Chinese military who visited the Minsk. At the end of the tour was a poster display "declaring China should have carriers, too."
The U.S. Navy has 12 active aircraft carriers, nine of them Nimitz-class nuclear carriers. At least eight other countries have one or two aircraft carriers, including India and Thailand.
China's rival, Japan, launched a helicopter-carrying destroyer, essentially a mini-carrier, in late August that's capable of carrying 11 helicopters.
Experts say a host of problems awaits China in mastering the technique of bringing in jet fighters with heavy landing gear and building the catapults and large elevators needed in aircraft carriers. Pilots often are killed and aircraft lost during training.
Opponents within China's military argue that submarines and mines can make carriers vulnerable, turning them into virtual "floating coffins." They say carrier deployment would alarm China's neighbors and alter the strategic equation in East Asia.
Aircraft carriers undoubtedly would help China project its naval power further around the globe, protecting oil shipments and commerce and boosting national pride.
"Building aircraft carriers can raise our national confidence," Xu said. "A country's naval force should be commensurate with its economic power and national defense capacity."
Xu added, however, that building carriers would have "more political meaning than military meaning."
A turning point came with a devastating tsunami in 2004, when the U.S. carrier Abraham Lincoln sailed quickly to Indonesia, providing crucial relief. China saw that carriers could play a valuable diplomatic and humanitarian role.
Erickson, the Naval War College expert, said China's military leaders might opt for smaller ships with deck-top platforms in the future.
"It's not Nimitz-class or nothing," Erickson said, referring to the huge U.S. carriers. "I think we can expect that China may experiment with different types of platforms."
Meanwhile, mystery surrounds the Varyag. The huge ship was only 70 percent built — still without engines or rudders — when China bought it for $20 million, far more than its scrap value. The vessel was towed from the Ukraine around the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in Dalian early in 2002. Some foreign experts say China is restoring the flight deck.
"I . . . believe the Varyag will serve as a transitional platform to train pilots and to perfect doctrine — both how to use a carrier and how to sink one," said Fisher, who's the vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Va.
A Hong Kong-based publication, Kanwa Asian Defence, reported in September that some Chinese-built J-10 fighters now carry tail hooks needed for carrier landings.
Kanwa said China would wait until the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games had passed to announce its plans to build aircraft carriers "due to concerns over its international image."
Xu said China shouldn't worry about others misconstruing its intentions.
"Time will dispel this misunderstanding and prove that China never intends to be a world cop and 'big brother,' " Xu said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Di contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007