Defense Industry Daily and several other sources report (cited and linked in DID) that China is in negotiation with the Russians to purchase some carrier-capable fighter aircraft. (Hat tip: Winds of Change). The aircraft in question appears to be the Sukhoi SU-33 "Flanker D."
Sino Defense.com reported in late October that China is buying two for $100 million (delivery sometime in 2007-2008). This is apparenly just for openers: Sino Defense, citing Russian sources, says a purchase of up to 50 aircraft, the deal valued in the billions of dollars, is in the works. The DID article says the number of planes China wants to purchase is 48. Possibly the Sino Defense article counts the first two twice, and lumps them in with this apparently separate, later purchase.
These are probably enough aircraft in this purchase to allow the Chinese to fairly evaluate the aircraft; train a few pilots, and have enough planes to disassemble and assess their own ability to reverse-engineer them -- unless they make a deal with the Russians to make them under license.
What will the Flankers fly from ? Sino Defense helpfully reminds us that the Chinese Navy is supposedly refitting Varyag, a Soviet-era aircraft carrier, completed just as the Soviet regime fell, that China bought from Ukraine in poor condition back in 1999, which never actually entered service in the Soviet Navy. Varyag was a sister-ship of Admiral Kuznetsov, the only true aircraft carrier that the Soviets had -- Kuznetsov operated a regiment of 12 Flankers.
I can't imagine that Varyag would be more than a temporary stopgap, sort of an evaluation ship, much like the Flankers. Varyag has been sitting idle and unused for a long time, and rehabilitating her to operate efficiently with another navy is probably both expensive and rather difficult. If the Chinese really want to build aircraft carriers, and it makes sense that they would, they will be doing some shipbulding of their own. I think that's a very good bet.
And given the nature of things, there's going to be a reply. . .I'm sure this is all being watched carefully in Tokyo. The Japanese are going to build themselves some carriers, also.