An obscure company in Macau, a tiny gambling haven on the south China coast, buys an unfinished aircraft carrier rusting in the Black Sea with plans to turn it into a floating amusement park.
Much about the deal that emerged this week in reports from Kiev, Hong Kong and Macau remains unclear. But defense analysts say the real story could be quite different from what it first appears to be.They note China's longtime goal of building or acquiring an aircraft carrier so it can project military power far beyond its coast, a plan that makes some Asian neighbors nervous.
In fact, China reportedly has been interested in buying the 33,600-metric-ton Varyag, which is about two-thirds complete and docked at a Black Sea port, from the vessel's owner, Ukraine.
Respected Taiwanese defense analyst Su Chin-chiang said China's desire to acquire the carrier, combined with the purchase by a little-known Macau company, pointed to a mainland connection.
Macau, with less than a half-million people, has been a Portuguese enclave for more than 400 years. But like Hong Kong, which reverted to China in July, Macau will become Chinese territory beginning in December 1999.
In recent years, freewheeling Macau has turned to gambling for its economic livelihood. Gaming now brings in about $2 billion a year, or 28 percent of the colony's gross domestic product.
The gambling revenues have contributed to the emergence of a growing wealthy class in Macau, where businessmen have been expanding ties with the mainland ahead of the handover.
At the same time, Ukraine, which gained ownership of the Varyag when the Soviet Union broke up, is strapped for cash.
Ukraine's Agency for Development and European Integration said Tuesday that a bid of $20 million from the Macau-registered Chong Lot company was the only offer it received for the aircraft carrier.
Agency director Roman Shpek said on TV that a contract would be signed in a month. The contract stipulates that the buyer can't use the carrier for military purposes, and that any equipment that could be used to build other warships had been removed from the craft.
Still, buying an aircraft carrier seems a bit too extravagant, even for Macau's entrepreneurs. Also, questions surround Chong Lot and who, exactly, stands behind the company, which was incorporated in Macau in August with capital of $125,000.
Efforts to contact the company were unsuccessful. A watchman at its officially registered address said he'd never heard of it, and the Macau telephone company said its number was unlisted.
The Hong Kong Standard newspaper reported Thursday that Chong Lot's two shareholders had Hong Kong identity cards.
Macau officials declined to comment. But the government has said it turned down an application to register the Varyag as a site for hotel, business and amusement facilities because Chong Lot was not licensed for any of them.
Besides, Macau's harbor is only a few yards deep in places, much too shallow for an aircraft carrier.
So who wants the Varyag, and why?
China has long sought to expand its deep-water fleet. But Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said China is years and vast expenditures away from acquiring the technology and hardware it needs.
The Varyag reportedly is in poor condition, but Karniol said that even if China chose to dismantle it, the military could learn something about how to build its own.
To make use of a carrier, he said, China would need everything that goes along with it - carrier-capable planes, plus the destroyers, submarines and auxiliary ships necessary for a battle group.
Analysts say China will need a decade or more to modernize its navy. But its neighbors are uneasy with the prospect of China establishing a carrier battle group, which is an offensive weapon - a tool for broadening military power.
"There has been speculation at various stages that the Chinese would buy the Varyag to turn it into an operational carrier," said Karniol.
"There is nothing really solid in terms of (China) acquiring a vessel," he said. "At the same time, we know with certainty they're interested in doing that."