In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Chinese Major General Qian Lihua (錢利華), director of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office, said China has every right to build aircraft carriers, without confirming whether it had decided to do so. This enigmatic remark stirred fresh speculation about China’s intentions in developing or acquiring the carriers in light of its economic rise.
China’s intention to build up its own aircraft carriers, viewed as an essential component of building the “blue water” navy able to deploy beyond its coastal waters, has not surprised China watchers. In fact, China has already invested decades of effort in its bid to acquire or develop a monstrous warship.
In 1975 Admiral Liu Huaqing (劉華清), vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, highlighted for first time that China must establish its own aircraft carrier battle group(s) to secure sea lines of communication and protect national sovereignty.
Liu said the goal of developing aircraft carriers was not to start an arms race with the US or the Soviet Union but to meet the requirements for a potential military struggle with Taiwan, settle potential conflicts in the South China Sea, protect its maritime resources, enable China to keep up with regional powers such as India and Japan, give the Chinese navy a decisive edge in future warfare, and participate in the world peacekeeping.
China has purchased four decommissioned carriers: the Melbourne (1985), the Varyag (1998), the Minsk (1998) and the Kiev (2000) from Australia, Ukraine and Russia respectively. Only the Varyag, now docked in Dalien, seems to be a candidate for refurbishment to operational status after photos seen in December 2005 appeared to show activity on the deck to apply new coatings consistent with aircraft operations.
Some specialists, however, believe that these four carriers — which are different in terms of function, designation and structure — must have been used to expedite China’s research and development capabilities in developing its own model.
There have been many reports regarding China’s aircraft carrier intentions. In October 2006, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Russia had signed a US$2.5 billion arms sale contract with China to deliver 48 SU-33 fighters, which the Sukhoi Aviation Bureau designed specifically for carrier operations.
In March last year, a Beijing-backed Hong-Kong newspaper reported that China could have its first aircraft carrier by 2010. Rick Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center and an expert on the Chinese military, concurred with that report. He believes that “before the end of this decade, we will see preparations for China to build its first indigenous aircraft carrier.”
Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last month that the People’s Liberation Army was training the first batch of 50 cadets to become naval pilots capable of operating aircraft from the mock-up carrier at the Dalian Naval Academy.
All this is evidence that China has a more ambitious and impending timetable than many might think. An aircraft carrier is perceived as a potent symbol of national power, and China is expected to finish building its first aircraft carrier within two to five years.
Such a scenario is cause for concern in East Asia, especially among countries that claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, and will definitely have a great impact on other countries in the region — India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and of course, Taiwan — as well as the US.