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China’s worst-kept secret naval weapon

SINGAPORE—ON June 8, the Hong Kong Commercial Daily News reported that Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People Liberation  Army (PLA), had confirmed that China was building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence by the country’s secretive military.

The newspaper quoted General Chen as saying that the 300-meter refurbished Soviet carrier “is being built, but it has not been completed.” The paper quoted anonymous sources as saying, however, that the carrier would be launched by the end of June at the earliest, a year earlier than US military analysts expected.

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The confirmation came on the same day China stepped up criticism of the Philippines in a burst of invectives over disputed waters in the South China Sea, calling on Manila to stop infringing on its sovereignty with irresponsible claims over the Spratly Islands. “China demands that the Philippines stop unilateral actions that damage China’s sovereignty and interests at sea and could lead to the expansion and complication of the South China Sea dispute, and stop issuing irresponsible comments that are inconsistent with facts,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hon Lei. The comments were China’s most vitriolic in weeks of tension as the Philippines denounced what it described as the increasing assertiveness of Chinese ships in the region since last March.

The Philippines has accused China of intrusions into its territory, citing six instances, including one in March when two Chinese ships tried to ram a Philippine survey ship.

The timing of the confirmation of the prospective launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, in the midst of the heightening tensions among countries with claims in the South China Sea, caused fear in the region of further Chinese aggressive naval actions to try to intimidate and stop explorations by rival claimant countries for marine and oil resources underneath the disputed waters.

Efforts of China to develop a blue water navy to project its military power over the region and to establish its hegemony have long made smaller neighboring countries nervous. The rush to launch the carrier has been regarded as part of the Chinese plan of dominion over the South China Sea.

China until recently has been secretive about the completion of the carrier, but it is also its military’s worst-kept secret. Military analysts regard the carrier as the most visible symbol of its rising military power. It also highlights the maritime arms race in the region fueled by the rivalry for control over territories and strategic navigation routes in the region.

According to a BBC News report from Dalian, a naval base, the 60,000-ton warship is being outfitted for a launch in time for the 61st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The report said the Varyag sits at a dockside in the port of Dalian, and is almost set to sail. Although the PLA has been reluctant to say anything about its first aircraft carrier, as it has not yet entered service, its existence is no longer a secret. “It is there for all to see, somewhat incongruously, right behind Dalian’s Ike superstore,” said the BBC report. The huge carrier “has  been years in the making, and it is an unmistakable sign of  China’s expanding military and its desire to project Chinese power further beyond its borders than ever before.”

“An aircraft carrier is a symbol of the power of our navy,” said Gen. Xu Guangyo, now retired but who advises China’s government on its military modernization program.  “China should at least be on the same level as other permanent members of the UN Security Council who have carriers… It’s also a symbol of deterrence.  It’s like saying, ‘Don’t mess with me. Don’t think you can bully me.’ So it’s normal for us to want a carrier. I actually  think it’s strange if China does not have one.”

But that’s not the way the smaller neighbors think of China’s current naval power. To them that is bullying and some are standing their ground, among them the Vietnamese and Filipinos who have denounced incursions of Chinese vessels inside their own territorial zones.

According to BBC News, the carrier was constructed in the 1990s for the navy of the former Soviet Union. Named Varyag, it was never completed.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, the rusting hull of the carrier sat in a dockyard in the Ukraine. Reports say it will be  named Shi Lang, after the Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan in the 17th century.

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Rich Fisher, senior analyst at the International Assessment Strategy Center, a think tank in the US, says China has big naval ambitions. “It is going to have aircraft comparable in capability to the recent fighters on American fighter decks in about three years. The aircraft carrier is part of China’s fulfillment of its 2004 historic mission that the PLA will increasingly defend the Communist Party’s interests outside of China. By the 2020s, China wants a military that will be globally deployable and will be able to challenge American interests where they need to be challenged.”

According to Dr. Andrew Erickson, a China expert at  the US Naval College, “China does not want to start a war, bur rather seeks to wield its growing  military might to ‘win without fighting’ by deterring actions that it views as  detrimental to its core national interests.”

The carrier is reported to be due to begin sea trials in the summer. “Once operational it would give the Chinese Navy a significant new capability in its continuing disputes with its maritime neighbors,” said the BBC report.

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