Iron fists on the high seas
China's stature as a maritime power will get a major boost when its first aircraft carrier undertakes its sea trials soon. Straits Times correspondent Jonathan Eyal tells why these vessels pack a punch
THE giant, grey-painted ship docked right behind an Ikea superstore in the north-western Chinese seaport of Dalian has no official name or designation. But it has already attracted the attention of countless spy satellites. For it is China's worst-kept military secret: the country's first aircraft carrier.
And when it finally sets sail on its first operational mission - which could happen within weeks, says a China Daily report on Tuesday - it will serve as a vivid reminder of China's great power status.
Chinese officials have sought to play down its importance. 'It is a symbol of deterrence,' says retired general Xu Guangyu. 'It says: don't mess with me, don't think you can bully me.'
But the aircraft carrier does much more than that, for it gives China the ability to project its power far away from its shores. And, over time, this is guaranteed to transform Asia's strategic map.
China's quest for an aircraft carrier goes back half a century. The issue was first debated in 1958, when Mao Zedong tabled a plan for what he called the 'railways on the high seas'. Characteristically, Mao's dream was gigantic: it envisaged the construction of fleets of merchant ships, escorted by 'proletarian' aircraft carriers.
Nothing came of this idea, but scaled-down programmes to construct an aircraft carrier were subsequently raised in Beijing. At one point during the late 1970s, party boss Hua Guofeng made a decision to purchase a 'light' vessel of this type, but this also petered out.
Daunted by costs
THE reasons for the hesitation were, invariably, costs, bureaucratic infighting and broader policy considerations. When Mao dreamt of aircraft carriers, an average Soviet-built battleship would have devoured a quarter of the Chinese navy's then-procurement budget.
Furthermore, the Chinese navy lacked the political influence enjoyed by the ground or air forces to lobby for bigger funding.
And, as Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader, the main priority was domestic development; aircraft carriers were dismissed as platforms which would raise global concerns about Chinese intentions, for little practical benefits.
But the Chinese navy ultimately got help from an unexpected quarter: none other than the United States. When Taiwan's then-President Lee Teng-hui held the island's first open elections in 1996, China thought it could influence the ballot's outcome by holding missile-firing tests in waters adjacent to Taiwan. The strategy backfired spectacularly. The US responded by scrambling two of its aircraft carriers - one from the Middle East and another from the Pacific - to patrol the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese could do little more than watch the ships with deep frustration, and back down.
At the time, then US President Bill Clinton was hailed for this masterful use of sea power. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, the 1996 Taiwan episode can be seen a classic example of a strategic victory with unintended consequences. For the humiliation which China experienced persuaded its leaders that aircraft carriers were a unique political asset, a huge iron fist which is both easily deployable and flexible - precisely what Chinese naval commanders have argued for decades. In effect, Mr Clinton made the case for China's aircraft carrier.
What followed was a saga worthy of the best spy novel. Seemingly out of the blue, a group of Chinese investors offered US$20 million to buy the Varyag, a disused Soviet-era aircraft carrier with no engines, which lay rusting in a Ukraine port. The investors, who by sheer chance just happened to include some retired Chinese military officers, claimed they wanted to use it as a floating casino in Macau, despite warnings from the territory's then- colonial masters that no such casino would be allowed, and that Macau's port was not deep enough to accommodate the beast. Strapped for cash and eager to rid itself of a problem, Ukraine accepted the offer in 1998.
But Turkey, whose consent was required for the ship to pass through the Dardanelles Strait, refused to cooperate. So the Varyag spent 18 months being towed aimlessly around the Black Sea, before the Turks were persuaded to let it through, in return for Chinese economic favours.
Egypt, which owns the Suez Canal, proved harder to please: It banned the Varyag. As a result, it had to sail all the way through the Mediterranean and around Africa, an odyssey during which it once caught fire and was twice almost broken up in storms.
Needless to say, it never moored anywhere near Macau. It was taken straight to Dalian and was swiftly painted a dull grey, not the colour usually favoured by casinos.
Western intelligence services knew all along what was happening, and official Chinese protestations - made as late as 2007 - that Beijing had 'no intention' of acquiring an aircraft carrier, were never taken seriously. Besides, even before the Varyag arrived at its new home port, Chinese sailors were already observed exercising on dummy replicas of the ship, while naval variants of Chinese aircraft were developed.
The acquisition of the Varyag is largely unimportant; it merely saved the Chinese some time and money, for the real essence of an aircraft carrier is to be found in the ship's propulsion, electronics and the jets deployed on its decks, rather than the hull itself. On all these counts, Chinese technology remains far behind that of the US.
Still, this is just the beginning of a bigger programme which, according to US assessments, may cost China about US$20 billion (S$24.4 billion) over the next four years. This will entail the development of many additional escort ships, as well aircraft and electronic warfare equipment. In effect, the launch of the first aircraft carrier is just a statement of intent.
The Chinese move comes at a time when the usefulness of carriers is increasingly questioned in the West. In a seminal article published last month in the authoritative journal of the US Naval Institute, two American experts jokingly dismissed their country's plans to build huge carriers as '$UPERfluous', arguing that they are too expensive and vulnerable to be effective. 'In past gun and aircraft eras, there was a linear relationship between size and reach. Now, in the missile era, a small combatant can reach as far as a large one,' the authors concluded.
Support for their position is provided by China itself, which is known to be developing a missile designed to hit aircraft carriers. Admiral Robert Willard, the US Pacific commander, recently admitted that China's new weapon, dubbed the DF-21D, may have reached 'initial operational capability'.
Hitting aircraft carriers at long distances is very difficult. Although the ships are big, they may be too small to be detected by satellites. While they may move slowly, their speed is still sufficient to prevent accurate missile targeting. Furthermore, incoming warheads can be intercepted and destroyed and, even if some hit, this may not be enough to sink a carrier.
Still, while an aircraft carrier may be tricky to detect, its massive electromagnetic footprint could be tracked by space-borne sensors. China's over-the- horizon radars could also help in this respect. Homing devices attached to missiles may improve their accuracy, and the possibility of firing many missiles simultaneously could overwhelm a carrier's defences. The question of whether China has perfected these capabilities will preoccupy the US intelligence community for years to come.
Either way, one conclusion seems obvious: China's entry into the aircraft carrier age will usher in a new naval arms race. The US is unlikely to abandon its programme, domestic critics notwithstanding. Some other Asian countries will beef up their own navies. And there will be keen interest in anti-carrier weapons.
Former commander of the Chinese navy Liu Huaqing, who spent all his professional life arguing in favour of aircraft carriers, never lived to see his dream come true: He died earlier this year. It is now up to his successors to carry on the programme, in the hope of achieving what no other nation accomplished in a century: to prevail against the US in what is guaranteed to be a furious technological competition.
Symbol of the dragon's might
First aircraft carrier takes Beijing closer to its goal of becoming regional naval power
By Nilanjana Sengupta
THE unveiling of China's first aircraft carrier - which will reportedly be called the Shi Lang - is symbolic of Beijing's ambitions to become Asia's pre-eminent naval power, analysts say.
The ship - a refurbished former Soviet vessel - is not expected to have any immediate impact on the South China Sea dispute and on Sino-US relations, given its limited operational capacity, they add.
But 'it is a portent of China's plans for regional, and eventually global, power projection', says Mr Michael Richardson, a maritime security specialist and a visiting senior research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas).
Analysts say reaction from countries in South-east Asia, which has seen tensions rise recently over territorial claims in the South China Sea, has been fairly muted, probably because regional militaries are aware of the carrier's limited operational abilities.
It is 'based on old technology, it is not fully networked with other PLAN (People's Liberation Army Navy) surface and sub-surface vessels, and the Chinese fighter pilots have yet to master take-off and landings from a vessel at sea', Dr Ian Storey, an expert on South-east Asian security issues and a fellow at the Iseas, told The Straits Times.
'It will be used by the Chinese Navy as a training platform. Aircraft carriers are among the most complex pieces of military hardware in existence, and it will take time for the Chinese to become proficient in carrier operations.'
It is unlikely, therefore, that the carrier will play a major operational role in the South China Sea, he said.
The United States will also not see it as posing a credible threat to its supremacy in Asian waters, although the US Navy will monitor developments, the experts add.
But China's first aircraft carrier has symbolic significance for other regional players, including Taiwan and South- east Asian states locked in dispute with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands.
Tensions have gone up in recent weeks, with Vietnam and the Philippines accusing China of increasingly aggressive action in the waters around the Spratly islands.
The carrier 'is a signal to rival claimants of the South China Sea islands that Beijing is serious about upholding its sovereignty claims in the disputed waters', said Mr Richardson.
Professor Koichi Sato of J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo noted that Admiral Liu Huaqing, one of the first to propose a Chinese aircraft carrier, had stressed the necessity of aircraft carriers to defend PLA warships against air raids in the event of a naval battle for the liberation of Taiwan. Some other PLA officer also stressed the importance of aircraft carriers to 'retake' the islands of the East China Sea and South China Sea which were 'illegally deprived by the foreign countries', he added.
Prof Sato also pointed to the significance of the name that some say will be given to the ship: Shi Lang was the name of a 17th century Qing Dynasty admiral who retook Taiwan from the kingdom of Tungning ruled by the Zheng family. It may point to the PLA's ambitions for its aircraft carriers regarding modern- day Taiwan, the Spratly Islands, and the Senkaku Islands, he said.
China is planning to follow up the flattop with a series of all-new aircraft carriers that it is building in its own shipyards.
If these new carriers are brought into service over the next decade or two and operated effectively, it would tilt the balance of power in the disputed waters more decisively in China's favour and perhaps tempt it to use military muscle to enforce its claims, unless regional states show greater cohesion and receive support from the US, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia, Mr Richardson said.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine last month, Mr James Holmes of the US Naval War College said: 'Some Chinese-claimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels are too small to fortify; carrier groups would provide a forward, mobile airfield from which to defend the islands, the adjacent waters, and the rich natural resources thought to lie in the seabed beneath.'
With additional reporting by Tokyo Correspondent Kwan Weng Kin
Why carriers rule the waves
AIRCRAFT carriers are considered the jewels in the crown of any navy, partly because of their size and cost, but also because of their ability to project power.
The idea of using a ship's deck to launch objects into the air is not new. A British vessel catapulted propaganda leaflets into France as early as 1806, and an Austrian ship attempted - with comic results - to bombard enemies with balloons in 1849.
So, when aviation was invented, it was inevitable that ships would be adapted to carry planes. The first efforts by the United States navy in the early 20th century were not very successful, but the advent of seaplanes - aircraft which could take off and land on water - changed the equation.
During World War I, both Britain and France possessed primitive aircraft carriers; these were often converted commercial vessels with floats, which allowed seaplanes to be lowered into the water before they took off.
Interestingly, however, the first successful attack from an aircraft carrier was executed by Japan in September 1914, when seaplanes launched from the carrier Wakamiya bombed Chinese territory. So, although the aircraft carrier is a Western invention, it claimed its first victims in Asia; British carriers did not go into action until December 1914.
Disarmament treaties after the end of World War I limited the development of heavy ships. Yet, by 1918, Britain acquired the first carrier with a completely flat deck, the HMS Argus; the US and Japan followed suit, with the Americans pioneering techniques for the launch and landing of aircraft on ships.
But the aircraft carrier truly came into its own during World War II when, again, it was Japan which proved its awesome capabilities: Six of its 10 aircraft carriers struck Pearl Harbour, crippling the US Pacific fleet in one day. Ironically, the Japanese failed to destroy America's carriers, and these proved crucial in clinching the subsequent US sea supremacy.
The vessels have always been hugely expensive to build: One US 'super carrier' of the Gerald Ford class, scheduled to enter service in 2015, is estimated to cost US$23 billion (S$28 billion), including research and development.
And they are equally expensive to operate. Because their size and slow movement make them vulnerable to enemy attack, aircraft carriers require a protective escort of other ships and submarines, usually referred to as a 'battle group'. They also need specially adapted aircraft.
And no nation wishing to have a truly global reach can do with just one vessel: at a minimum, two are required in order to ensure round-the-clock availability. That is why, at any given point over the last century, only a handful of nations has ever possessed aircraft carriers. China has been the only country with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council never to enjoy such a capability.
The appeal of these huge beasts to those who can afford them remains undeniable. For, apart from long-range missiles, there is no other military platform which can deliver a quick strike at a long distance, and in a sustained manner.
Strategic planners love them, because aircraft carriers can be moved around at short notice, and therefore do not require prior guessing as to who the enemy may be. They also dispense with the need to establish ground bases in other countries: The latest generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers can operate over a long period of time, with relatively few supply or maintenance problems.
And, since they can carry jets, helicopters and troops, aircraft carriers are suited for every mission, from major strikes to small humanitarian missions, or the occasional commando raid. The US elite forces that killed Osama bin Laden returned to the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier; it was from its deck that the body of the Al-Qaeda leader was consigned to the sea.
The advent of ground-based missiles specifically designed to hit aircraft carriers has prompted some military analysts to claim that the golden age of these platforms is now drawing to an end.
Clearly, China does not share this view.
Neither does Britain, which pioneered the weapon: It recently decided to sacrifice many existing ships in order to spare the cash for two new aircraft carriers. And Japan is also operating the platforms, although, at least for the moment, it still portrays them as just helicopter carriers.