China confirmed yesterday that it’s close to completing the refitting of the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, now known as the Shi Lang, and that the vessel will soon be ready for its first ‘research and training’ mission.
The refurbishment of the former Ukrainian vessel has been known about – and widely speculated on – for some time. But Chinese officials this time went further in adding that they are also considering building their own carrier.
‘Taking into accounts all elements, authorities in China are seriously looking into the development of an aircraft carrier. To build a carrier is a complicated process,’ Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, was quoted by CNTV as saying.
The announcement comes at a sensitive time in the region. An intensifying row with Southeast Asian neighbours including Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in the South China Sea has exacerbated concerns that China will employ an increasingly muscular foreign policy backed up by a rapidly strengthening military.
Chinese military officials, though, were quick to defend the country’s carrier plans.
In a front-page editorial, the official Liberation Army Daily argued that past Chinese ‘humiliations’ have ‘left the Chinese people with the deep pain of having seas they could not defend, helplessly eating the bitter fruit of being beaten for being backward.’
Despite the emphasis on defence, the reference to ‘humiliation’ and national pride is bound to stoke concerns among neighbours like Japan that China’s military rise will be coupled with a growing – and dangerous – nationalism.
Speaking yesterday, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano will have spoken for many when he stated: ‘The issue of transparency regarding China's defense policy and its military expansion itself are concerns not only for Japan but for the region and the international community.’
But China argues that military expansion doesn’t necessarily mean that aggressive policies will follow.
In an interview with China Daily, Du Wenlong, a research fellow with the Academy of Military Sciences, argues that much of the foreign media has misunderstood China’s military development.
‘China's development of aircraft carriers is aimed at making a greater contribution by the Chinese people to a harmonious maritime environment. China's development of aircraft carriers is not directed against anyone or any country, but a kind of maintenance and protection for world and regional security,’ he said.
‘Some foreign media deliberately created the “China threat theory,” but with the “China threat theory” being there for so many years, no one is threatened. The facts will continue to prove that despite developing aircraft carriers, China will always be a defender of world peace and stability.’
The question now is whether China intends to utilize the increasingly big stick that it possesses, or just keep speaking softly.