Sun, Jan 09, 2011 - Page 5 News List

‘Invincible’ could become school in China

OLD CARRIER:The ‘Invincible’ is a British aircraft carrier that was decommissioned in 2005 after 25 years of service in wars in Iraq, Yugoslavia and the Falkland Islands

The Guardian, BEIJING

This undated handout photo provided by the Royal Navy shows the HMS Invincible at sea.

PHOTO: AFP

Gutted, defanged and now up for sale, HMS Invincible could soon be towed to China and berthed in waters the Royal Navy dominated during the opium wars.

A UK-based businessman, Lam Kin-bong, bid £5 million (US$7.7 million) for the decommissioned aircraft carrier, which he wants to turn into a floating international school in a marina on the coast of Guangdong Province.

If the bid — first reported in the South China Morning Post — is successful, the voyage would be one of the most dramatic symbols yet of the shift in economic and military power from west to east.

For Britain and China, the differing fortunes are increasingly stark. The UK government has slashed the defense budget and announced the navy would be without an aircraft carrier capable of carrying jets for about 10 years. The Ark Royal will be decommissioned this month.

China has been increasing military spending and is believed to be building its first aircraft carrier, with plans for at least four more over the next 20 years. Reports this week suggest it is close to test-flying a new stealth fighter jet and has operational capability with a “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile.

The Invincible was decommissioned in 2005 after 28 years’ active service in Iraq, Yugoslavia and the Falklands. Stripped of engines, armaments and technology, the 500m hull was put up for auction last month by the Disposal Services Agency.

Its proposed home is in Zhuhai, in the province that was the beachhead for British opium dealers after the trade was forced on China by the Royal Navy.

The British Ministry of Defence has yet to reply to requests for details of rival offers.

The £5 million bid by Lam — made through his company Sunway Yacht Ltd, which is based in his birthplace, Zhuhai — is considerably higher than the £2 million that had been expected. Towing the vessel to the other side of the world and refurbishing it as a school is likely to cost another £6 million.

Whether the deal is approved is another matter, given the EU’s arms embargo against China and Beijing’s past use of second-hand carriers.

In 1998, a Hong Kong firm won a Ukrainian navy auction for the old Soviet carrier Varyag, claiming that it would be used as a floating casino off Macau. Instead, it is being upgraded, fitted with combat sensors and defensive weapons and painted in the colors of the People’s Liberation Army. Military analysts say it is likely to go back into service.

It would be harder to use the Invincible in the same way, as it has been more thoroughly stripped. Lam, who moved to London 20 years ago and has set up the Wing Wah chain of restaurants in Birmingham, said suspicions were unfounded.

“My intentions are purely commercial and have nothing to do with the military,” he told the South China Morning Post.

If permission to tow the vessel to China is withheld, Lam said he would dock it in Liverpool and turn it into a school.

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