The Ministry of National Defense said yesterday it was closely monitoring the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier and China’s carrier development program, while Taiwanese observers described the milestone for China’s navy as mostly symbolic.
The Varyag “left its shipyard in Dalian Port in northeast Liaoning Province on Wednesday morning to start its first sea trial,” Xinhua news agency reported, describing the trip as a tentative test run for the unfinished ship.
The aircraft carrier, which is about 300m long, ploughed through fog and sounded its horn three times as it left the dock, Xinhua said on its military news microblog.
Ministry spokesman David Lo (羅紹和) said the ministry has consistently kept close tabs on China’s aircraft carrier development project and all related activities.
“We will continue to collect more information about all follow-up developments,” Lo said.
Former deputy defense minister Lin Chong-pin (林中斌) said there were three primary reasons why China is developing aircraft carriers.
The first, it is economical, to protect Chinese oil tankers passing through the Indian Sea. Second, it is militaristic diplomacy to form a navy fleet by combining the army, navy and air force. Third and most importantly, it is to project itself as a major power and to protect nationalist sentiment, at the same time satisfying the emotional needs of the people.
Rather than being able to convey actual military might, the Varyag should be seen as a psychological symbol of a strengthening Chinese identity, Lin said, adding that Beijing did not intend to use the Varyag against Taiwan as “there is no need.”
Lin said the addition of the aircraft carrier, along with other Chinese-developed vessels including destroyers, cruisers and submarines, as well as China’s jet fighters and missiles, meant that Taiwan’s Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) III anti-ship missiles and its other cruise missiles would be like “mosquitos biting an elephant” should conflict ever break out in the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese Communist Party knows the steep price of resorting to a military solution to the cross-strait issue and although “they have not abandoned the thought, they are not prioritizing it,” Lin said, adding that China is instead resorting to using non-military means of coercion.
The military impact of the Varyag’s trial run on Taiwan in the short term is very small, but in the long term, it symbolizes the strengthening of Chinese military arsenal, he added.
If one day the two governments enter into political negotiations, Taiwan would be “half a head shorter” the moment they were seated at the table because “negotiation isn’t just bandying words, it also depends on the hard power each has,” Lin said, adding that Taiwan would have a weaker set of chips to bargain with.
Arthur Ding (丁樹範), director of National Chengchi University’s International Relations Institute, said the Varyag’s trial was symbolic.
“The sea trial was launched mainly to satisfy the 1.3 billion Chinese people’s expectations of the progress their country is making on aircraft carrier development,” Ding said.
Xinhua said “building a strong navy that is commensurate with China’s rising status is a necessary step and an inevitable choice for the country to safeguard its increasingly globalized national interests.”