In 1966, Hollywood produced a Cold War comedy about a Russian submarine becoming stranded on the shoals of a small New England town. It was a good movie and it nicely captured the misplaced hysteria of the era about Soviet military intentions. It was called The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! I recommend you pick up a copy if you can.
Now get ready for the Chinese version: not a new movie, but a revived hysteria. China is about to put into operation its first aircraft carrier, rumoured to be called Shi Lang, after a 17th century admiral who conquered Taiwan. Previously known as the Varyag when it was under construction for the Soviet and later the Ukrainian navies, China acquired the uncompleted carrier in 1998 at auction for $20 million.
Lacking electronics and a propulsion system, the ship was reportedly purchased to serve as a floating casino in Macao, but after a nearly incredible saga of transport from Ukraine and around Africa, it ended up in Dalian in China’s northeast, where it was dry-docked and painted People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) gray. Subsequent activity presumably has involved installing the missing electronics and propulsion systems.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Officially, China was cagey about its intentions for the aircraft carrier. Chinese sources say that there was considerable debate internally over the risks and benefits of acquiring a single carrier or two. On the benefit side are the prestige and sense of having ‘arrived’ as a power. More practically, a test run with a carrier will give the PLAN a more precise estimate of the costs, training, and operational adjustments needed to deploy such a capability effectively, before deciding on additions. For some, the carrier will reduce the difficulties of defending extended Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
As for the risks, some Chinese argued that carriers aren’t economically or strategically wise in an era of enhanced conventional threats against carrier battle groups. Moreover, a carrier battle group will reinforce suspicions among China’s neighbors of its hostile intent.
It’s now clear from gradually released official Chinese statements and news reports that the advocates of carriers won the debate, at least temporarily. Beijing has dribbled out hints that the carrier is coming, possibly out of concern for the reactions of its neighbours, including their own acquisitions for defense against a new perceived threat. It would be wise for Beijing to be cautious about over selling its development too, because of the formidable challenges learning to use carrier capabilities will pose to the PLAN.
Senior US naval officers and many of their colleagues in Asian navies regard the carrier as a manageable threat even if Beijing can learn how to deploy it. Indeed, some joke that they hope China will acquire five more battle groups and waste even more money that could go into other, more threatening systems. All say that they will watch China’s efforts at implementation this year closely.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Pacific Commander Adm. Robert Willard recently dismissed the impact of the carrier as largely ‘symbolic,’ but he added that ‘based on the feedback that we received from our partners and allies in the Pacific, I think the change in perception by the region will be significant.’