China’s first aircraft carrier left Dalian port in northeastern Liaoning Province on Aug. 10 and started its first sea trial. There is a speculation that if everything goes smoothly, it will be commissioned on Oct. 1, 2012, China’s national founding day.
China will probably take a few years before it can fully train pilots of carrier-borne aircraft and operate a full-fledged carrier battle group. But the aircraft carrier’s sea trial began at a time when the Chinese navy is causing friction with neighboring countries such as Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China regards aircraft carriers as symbols of its capabilities to project its power globally. The eventual commissioning of its first carrier will increase tensions in the region and could lead to a race to build up militaries among the nations concerned. The worries of these nations will increase all the more because China will not be content with possessing just one aircraft carrier but will likely build multiple aircraft carriers.
Recently China’s naval activities have gone beyond the so-called first line of archipelagos stretching from Okinawa to Taiwan and the Philippines and have expanded into the Western Pacific. Against this background, a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships inside Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in September 2010. In the South China Sea, friction increased this year between an aggressive Chinese navy and the Vietnamese and Philippine navies in connection with territorial disputes over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. China claims that the South China Sea constitutes its “core interest.”
Lack of transparency has been pointed out for many years regarding China’s military buildup. It is quite reasonable that the United States asked China why it needs an aircraft carrier.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. “would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give” as to why it needs “this kind of equipment.” China should explain to the international community in clear terms why it needs an aircraft carrier that can attack an enemy far away from its territories.
Ms. Nuland added, “We have had concerns for some time and we’ve been quite open with them with regard to the lack of transparency from China regarding its power projection and its lack of access and denial of capabilities.”
On July 27, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said the aircraft carrier is “for scientific, research, experiments and training.” He also said China will not change its defensive national defense policy while noting that “defending national security and sovereignty over the state’s territorial sea is the duty of the China’s armed forces.”
His explanations are too general to expel suspicions concerning China’s possession of an aircraft carrier.
The aircraft carrier is the former Soviet carrier Varyag. It is about 305 meters long and its full-load displacement is some 67,500 tons. The Soviet Union stopped constructing it in 1992 when it was 60 percent complete.
Later Ukraine came to own it. An entity called Chong Lot Travel Agency bought the carrier to use it as a casino in Macau. But eventually China acquired the carrier. It arrived in a shipyard in Dalian for refurbishment in 2002.
Possessing an aircraft carrier has been China’s long-cherished dream. The U.S. tried preventing aircraft carrier-related technology from being obtained by China and applied pressure on Ukraine. Engines and most other equipment were removed from the carrier. It was sold just as a shell.
It is said that China secretly obtained design blueprints from Ukraine. The jet fighter to be deployed aboard China’s first carrier is the Jian-15 (Flying Shark). But this aircraft is almost identical to the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-borne fighter, which was developed by Russia. Ukraine sold a prototype of the Su-33 to China.
It is reported that Russia was greatly angered by China’s stealing of Russian military technology, not limited to the Su-33, and protested to China many times.
The Chinese aircraft carrier may not immediately pose military threats to the U.S. because it will take several years before China can operate a carrier battle group. But if China has a fully operational carrier battle group and adds more carriers to its fleet, the situation will change.
China could develop a strong capability to deny U.S. naval ships access to the Taiwan Straits.
Even before this happens, the U.S. may face real threats. China is reported to be close to deploying land-based missiles that can hit and sink aircraft carriers operating up to 1,500 kilometers from Chinese shores.
As a spokesman for the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said, China, a big power, should contribute to peace and stability in the region and the world in a responsible manner.
China’s military buildup would lead to strengthening of military cooperation among the U.S. and China’s neighboring countries. China should realize that this would increase instability in the region and would not benefit China.
First of all, a China intent on a military buildup will not be trusted by the international community.