ON AUGUST 10th, after years of secretive work, the Chinese navy launched its first aircraft-carrier on its maiden voyage. The Chinese media hailed the vessel as a sign of China’s emergence as a sea power, one they insist has only peaceful intent. Its neighbours are not so delighted.
State-controlled media had been predicting the ship’s imminent launch for weeks, prompting Chinese military enthusiasts to converge on the north-eastern port city of Dalian in the hope of seeing it set out. One newspaper said a fire escape on a nearby IKEA store was a good vantage point, but the Chinese navy kept quiet about when the date would be.
It has reason to be diffident. The ship is hardly a symbol of China’s prowess in technology. It was bought in 1998 from Ukraine, where it had been rusting half-finished since its first launch a decade earlier. The Ukrainians were told it would be used as a floating casino (they sold it without weapons or engines). But unlike two other ex-Soviet carriers in China that ended up as theme parks, this one was taken to a navy shipyard where, in 2005, it got a telltale coat of Chinese military paint. It was not until July that China confirmed it had been refitting the ship.
China has been mulling plans to build an aircraft-carrier since at least the 1970s. Officials debated how useful one would be in a conflict over Taiwan, the military planners’ main preoccupation until a few years ago. Land-based aircraft and missiles could be deployed easily across the Taiwan Strait. But in the past decade China has become more focused on acquiring the means to project power farther afield, the better to defend shipping lanes, it says, and to help relief efforts.
Other countries in the region believe China also wants to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea more vigorously. Vietnam and the Philippines have been complaining in recent months about what they see as a more aggressive posture by China in that area. There had been speculation that the aircraft-carrier would be launched in time for the Communist Party’s 90th birthday on July 1st. It is possible that its leaders decided that a lower-key affair a few weeks later might avoid stoking the neighbours’ suspicions.
For the time being the region’s pre-eminent naval power, America, is showing little sign of concern. The Chinese carrier’s actual deployment might yet be years away. China will take longer still to gain the expertise needed to deploy a carrier-based battle group, with all its supporting vessels. It is reportedly building two more aircraft-carriers (from scratch, this time). But the Americans worry more about other bits of China’s rapidly improving arsenal, from carrier-busting missiles to submarines and land-based fighter jets.
Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese appear not to be trying to match the size and capability of America’s huge fleet. Officials describe the aircraft-carrier programme partly as a prestige project. China has been acutely conscious of being the only permanent member of the United Nations without a carrier. Its rival India has long had one. Thailand has one too. Japan, another rival, has a carrier for helicopters that could be adapted for fighters.
China’s ship does not yet have a name. In Soviet hands it was the Varyag (a sister ship is the only operational carrier in Russia’s navy). Chinese internet users have made many suggestions. Some believe it should be named after a province. Chinese heroes are also popular, especially Shi Lang, a Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan in the 17th century. Officials would be wise to avoid that one.