The Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported in January that the 50,000-tonne Project 1143.5 Kuznetsov-class conventionally powered aircraft carrier Varyag, originally built in the Soviet Union and later purchased from the Ukraine by China, would soon be fully refurbished and ready for military service. The report said that equipment was being installed on the ship and that it would carry Sukhoi Su-33 fighters that China plans to buy from Russia, along with Chinese-built Flying Shark J-15 fighters, which are based on the Su-33. In addition, China is expected to build two 60,000-plus-tonne nuclear-powered aircraft carriers based on the former Soviet Union’s Project 1143.7 Ulyanovsk class that should be completed by 2020.
This and other reports about China’s aircraft carrier plans have prompted debate in Taiwan and abroad, with talk of the “China threat” coming to the fore once again. Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, told the US Senate on April 12 that when China deploys aircraft carriers, it will change the way countries in the region view the balance of military power in Asia and the Pacific.
In December last year, Japan published new National Defense Program Guidelines, which are in part a response to China’s growing sea power. The core content of the guidelines is a big increase in the number of new Japanese-built diesel-electric submarines. India, which already has three aircraft carriers, has paid US$2.33 billion to buy and refit the 44,000-tonne Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov.
The strategic purpose of China’s aircraft carrier fleet is mainly concerned not with the East China Sea, the US or Japan, but with command of the seas stretching from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. The US has used its aircraft carriers not only to project military power, but also to provide humanitarian assistance. If the US can do that, there is no reason why China should not do the same.
The most interesting discussions have to do with reports that the Varyag will be renamed the “Shi Lang.” Although it is not clear where this story came from, the earliest report about it seems to have appeared on the US-based Web site StrategyPage on Jan. 9, 2008, which said that sailors and civilians working on the Varyag revealed that the carrier would soon be officially renamed the “Shi Lang.”
Shi Lang (施琅) is the name of a Ming Dynasty admiral who surrendered to the succeeding Qing Dynasty. In 1683, the 23rd year of the reign of the Kangxi (康熙) emperor, Shi led Qing forces across the Taiwan Strait to take possession of Taiwan. For this reason, the name could be very sensitive politically.
China has its own set of rules for naming naval ships. According to China’s regulations for naming naval vessels, cruisers are to be named after provinces, regions or municipalities, destroyers after big and medium-sized cities, corvettes after medium and small-sized cities, and supply ships after lakes. Nuclear submarines take the name Long March (長征) plus a serial number, while conventional missile submarines are called Expedition (遠征) plus a serial number and conventional torpedo submarines are called Great Wall (長城) plus a serial number.
Minesweepers and minelayers are named after prefectures, submarine chasers after counties, dock and tank landing ships after mountains and infantry landing craft after rivers. Training craft are named after people, like the ocean-going training ship Zheng He (鄭和), named after the great Ming Dynasty admiral and explorer. A few ships have special names, such as the Peace Ark, which at 30,000 tonnes is the world’s biggest hospital ship.
However, China has never had any aircraft carriers, so people have been left guessing as to how they will be named. If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s first aircraft carrier is being built to serve primarily as a training ship, then it ought to be named after a person. The names of former leaders Mao Zedong (毛澤東) or Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) would be very suitable. Some experts suggest that the name of Republic of China founder Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) would be well received both in China and abroad, since his historic role is recognized by both China and Taiwan. Sun’s advocacy of equality and justice for all and working together for China’s development is echoed by China’s stress on its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and its pledge never to become a hegemonistic power.
For these reasons, these commentators think that Zhongshan (中山), Sun’s Japanese name and the one by which he is widely known in China and Taiwan, would be a most suitable name for the ship.
On April 10, Asia Times Online interviewed me about China’s current development strategy and the prospects for developing relations across the Taiwan Strait.
I said: “The People’s Liberation Army are not fools. They certainly wouldn’t take their own publicity hoarding and drop it on their own feet.’’
Quite in keeping with my comment, on May 3, Yang Yi (楊毅), director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, stated bluntly that the story going around that the aircraft carrier would be renamed the “Shi Lang” was a groundless rumor.
A couple of months ago, I was invited to take part in a symposium in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Some participating academics from China and Taiwan discussed this interesting question of what name the aircraft carrier would be given. Most of those present agreed that the top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party, government and PLA could hardly be unaware of the political -implications and -sensitive nature of the ship’s name. After repeated discussions and considering how much emphasis China puts on the notion of a “peaceful rise” and its role in protecting the seas, the majority opinion was that the best thing to do would be to name the aircraft carrier after Matsu (媽祖), the goddess of the sea.
Matsu is worshipped in Taiwan and all along China’s southeast coast. There are Matsu temples in Taiwan, Shanghai, Nanjing and in Shandong and Liaoning provinces, as well as overseas in Japan, Palau, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and even in Europe and the US.
Legend has it that when Zheng He went to sea in 1407, the sixth year of the reign of the Yongle (永樂) emperor, and was caught in a typhoon, he was able to return safely to China under Matsu’s protection. In October 2009, UNESCO listed worship of Matsu as a representative example of an intangible cultural heritage. Having started out in Meizhou in Fujian Province, the Matsu culture has been spreading out for hundreds of years and it has had a great influence on the consciousness and maritime culture of Chinese people.
Some people will criticize this idea as implicitly furthering China’s unification strategy, but we should be accustomed by now to seeing efforts to promote unification in everything Chinese officials do. Matsu is said to have majestic and heavenly authority.
While China will continue its rise during the 21st century, Taiwan should have its own outlook on issues of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea and over islands and waters of the South China Sea. We don’t necessarily have to follow the lead of Japan and the US in everything we say and do.
Wang Jyh-perng is an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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