China Unveils Carrier Plan

Photos of China's first aircraft carrier spark concerns over military intentions and transparency.
By Michael Lelyveld
2011-04-18
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carrierxinhua305.jpg A screengrab from xinhuanet.com shows a photo of the Varyag being rebuilt at a shipyard in Dalian, China.
RFA

China has sent mixed signals by publishing photos of the country's first aircraft carrier, security experts say.

On April 6, the official Xinhua news agency posted a series of photos on its English language website showing the carrier Varyag, which has been undergoing major reconstruction at the northern port of Dalian.

The images at the website xinhuanet.com have provided a first glimpse of the 55,000-ton former Soviet warship, which China has been overhauling since 2005 after acquiring it from Ukraine.

According to captions carried with the photos, the 25-year-old vessel is being prepared to set sail this year, The New York Times said.

That claim has apparently been deleted from the website, but China's rapid progress on its decades-old ambition to launch an aircraft carrier came as a surprise, according to the Times.

But in interviews, experts have been more cautious about what the progress and the publication of the photos will mean for regional security and China's goal of becoming a global naval power.

Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow and chair of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the launch of the Varyag should not be mistaken for development of an entire carrier battle group.

"Getting a carrier up and running to the level of what the United States has will probably take the Chinese decades, and the Varyag would be a very small step in that direction," Glaser said.

In the open water, an aircraft carrier can be vulnerable unless it is accompanied by a full complement of cruisers, destroyers, support ships and modern defensive systems.

Adam Segal, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, agreed it could be "several decades" before China develops all the capabilities it needs.

"Until we know that the Chinese can land planes on it, they can refuel and all these other things, in the short term, it's not going to have a very big strategic effect," Segal said. "It's mostly going to be political and psychological."

Apprehensive neighbors

In recent years, China's claims to offshore waters and islands have sparked disputes with a host of countries including Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Whether the Varyag is ready for sea trials this year or not, China's neighbors will be waiting to see how and where it will be used.

"Countries in the region have been increasingly concerned about China's military capabilities, and this is likely to make them more concerned. If the Chinese sail this in the South China Sea, then it certainly is going to alarm the other claimants to the islands," Glaser said.

In March 2009, Beijing's claims led to tensions with Washington after Chinese boats tried to block a U.S. surveillance ship in international waters of the South China Sea. A carrier could encourage China to make more assertive moves.

The Varyag could also be used in relief or anti-piracy missions. Glaser noted that the role of China's navy in helping to provide security for shipping in the Gulf of Aden has been well received by the international community.

But after years of expectation that China would someday get carrier capability, the bottom line is that no one is sure what its intentions are.

"The region is already very concerned about intimidating actions by China when they are sailing, for example, large patrol boats around the East China Sea or the South China Sea," Glaser said. "So, we can just imagine what the reaction will be when carriers start sailing, as well."

"I think it's going to further reinforce the sense that the Chinese navy has ambitions beyond the western Pacific, that it's going to be exerting itself out into the Indian Ocean, and I think these are all realities that the navy has been preparing itself for," said Segal.

The implications for Taiwan appear ambiguous.

Glaser said the Varyag would have difficulty operating safely in the narrow Taiwan Strait. While it could cause concerns by sailing to the south, its vulnerabilities would come into play from opposing forces in the open ocean.

But China may have raised larger questions about the transparency of its intentions by publishing the photos, which surfaced days earlier in the Global Times newspaper, affiliated with People's Daily, and in forums used by the military.

Opaque history

The history of the Varyag has been a study in subterfuge and secrecy.

The 306.5-meter (1,005-foot) ship was a work in progress when the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991. In spite of Western concerns, Ukraine sold it without a propulsion system or armaments for some U.S. $20 million to a mysterious tourism venture, ostensibly planning to turn it into a floating hotel and casino in Macau.

But when the owners tried to tow it out of the Black Sea in 2000, Turkey balked at letting it pass through the Bosporus, citing the danger of navigating such a massive, rudderless hulk through the 13 turns of the narrow straits.

The impasse with Turkey, a NATO member, led to a 15-month standoff that was resolved only after reported Chinese concessions on safety and tourism.

As it turned out, Ankara was right to worry about safety. The ship went adrift in the Aegean Sea after gale force winds ripped the cables holding the Varyag, forcing a helicopter rescue for the crew, according to reports at the time in the Turkish Daily News.

Suspicions about the casino plan also turned out to be warranted after the vessel was towed to China in 2002 and refreshed with a new coat of paint in 2005. But as late as 2007, Russian reports were still unsure whether the People's Liberation Army (PLA) planned to complete the Varyag or use it as a model for a new ship.

The Varyag was originally designed to carry 36 Sukhoi Su-27K Flanker fighters and 16 Kamov Ka-27 Helix helicopters, Izvestiya reported in 2009.

Addressing transparency?

Publication of the photos may mark the first clear statement of the PLA's plans. But it is less clear whether it was intended as a response to frequent criticisms of China's lack of transparency.

Curiously, the Xinhua spread came one day before Vice Premier Li Keqiang renewed calls on the United States to ease its curbs on high-tech exports to China. Beijing has argued for years that the restrictions are unneeded because China poses no security risk.

Glaser said she sees little improvement in China's transparency as a result of the photos. A more accurate measure is the country's recent military White Paper, which provided little new information, she said.

"I do not see China becoming more transparent about its defense capabilities and about its intentions," said Glaser.

Segal also sees the photos as having little bearing on U.S. export control decisions for China.

"There's a whole range of issues on which I think the U.S. still has deep suspicions of Chinese military intentions, and the pictures in the newspaper are not going to do anything to assuage that," Segal said.

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