Bad carrier move?

At DLR towers, we’re jolly interested in China. That’s not just because London’s greatest Chinese restaurant is within delivery distance of our house. It’s also because, beyond the colossal squid (colossal squid! Do you remember when it used to just be giant squid? Where will this end? Gimotherflippinormous squid?), China is the nation most likely to become our economic and political dominatrix in the future.

Hence, we were intrigued by the release on Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, of pictures of the refurbishment of the Varyag, a former Soviet aircraft carrier. Fear not, this blog will not be all Sino-geekery, but we think this is an important story so indulge us briefly.

Now we know you, dear reader, as an informed and intelligent being, have been an avid follower of the wealth of internet-based information that has come out about the Varyag over the years. Such sites were weeks ahead of Xinhua’s story in circulating these pictures. But still, the publication by the press agency most directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party of these photos is tantamount to a sheepish admission by Beijing that, yes, we lied to you all along and we really are going to use this boat in our navy.

What aircraft carrier? Oh, this old thing?

A little background: the Varyag was purchased by the Chinese in 1998 for a mere USD20 million. The hull had been built in southern Ukraine, but by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, she lacked a rudder, an engine, any electronics or weapons systems. She was, essentially, useless, particularly to a newly independent Ukraine with little desire to go galavanting off in an aircraft carrier (and no planes to put on the ship to boot). So, the Varyag was auctioned to a Hong Kong Chinese travel company, Chong Lot, which said it would use the ship as a floating hotel and casino in Macau.

Lo and behold, after a lengthy and adventurous towing session, which included a 16-month hiatus while Turkey refused transit through the Bosporus and an incident when the carrier broke free near Greece for four days, the Varyag eventually made it back to China in 2002. But she didn’t go to Macau. Strangely, she went to the large, northeastern port of Dalian. There she has sat for nine years, entering and leaving dry dock while China has slowly repaired and refitted the ship.

You can tell it's the Bosporus by the lady's headscarf.

That process has seen the ship repainted and weapons systems and radars fitted. We still don’t know if she has a rudder or engine, but steam testing suggets she might. She certainly looks a lot more shipshape than she used to.

So, in short, it looks like the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) wants to use the boat, either as a training vessel to practice landing their new naval aircraft or as an operational carrier (why install weapons if you’re just training?). It also suggests, and comments by naval officers have confirmed, that China will try to build its own carriers using its experience of working with the Varyag.

Should the US and its allies be worried? That really depends on your view of China’s intentions. Certainly, nobody really frets about India’s (admittedly really shonky) carrier or Japan’s two new helicopter carriers (which Tokyo coyly calls ‘destroyers’ to lessen criticism, even though ironically the word destroyer is a lot more threatening than carrier). And did you even know that Thailand currently operates East Asia’s only working fixed-wing-capable carrier?

But China gets so many people in the US hot and bothered. Partly this is because of a lack of transparency. If you’re building a carrier, thinks Washington, at least have the decency to tell people about it; don’t pursue a clandestine programme for 10 years and then meekly start mentioning it in your press. Partly this is because China is not the best of buds with a host of American allies, particularly Japan and Taiwan, but is quite good friends with countries like North Korea and Iran. Partly it’s because China does not always like to play by the rules of the former imperial powers that took it through its century of humiliation (who could have seen that coming?). And partly it’s because we can’t work out how close the colossal squid are to finally developing their on-land breathing apparatus, but we do have an idea of how close China is to being able and willing to deploy its forces far from home. Its latest defence white paper clearly stated its intentions to deploy its forces further afield in the future (it is already sending its ships to the Indian Ocean in counter-piracy missions and Beijing deployed a boat to the Mediterranean for the first time in an operation to evacuate citizens from Libya). Mainly, though, it’s because the only thing you need fixed-wing aircraft carriers for is for blowing the crap out of people that live a long way away. The US should know, it’s got 11 of them.

Now, theoretically there’s no real problem with China having a fleet of carriers and using them in stabilisation operations and the like (apart from, of course, the idea that maybe we should all be building fewer weapons platforms rather than more). Pax Sinica is not necessarily any better or worse than Pax Americana or Pax Britannica (although it is a lot better than Pax Cephalapoda). The real problem is that transitions between such paxes are usually pretty messy.

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