The last time the aircraft carrier once known as the Varyag generated this much concern, it was for fear it might sink. The ship was one of the Soviet Union's last naval commissions, but construction at the Black Sea shipyard of Mykolaiv was abandoned in 1992 after the U.S.S.R.'s breakup. The Varyag languished as an unfinished hulk until 1998, when a Chinese company, based in Macau and with ties to the Chinese navy, bought it from Ukraine, ostensibly to take the ship to the gambling enclave as a floating casino. Turkish officials worried that the 300-m vessel a rusting shell without weaponry, engines or navigation equipment would sink while crossing the Bosphorus Strait, causing an environmental headache and a hazard to navigation. So they delayed its passage for three years, only agreeing in 2001 to halt traffic on the Bosphorus to allow the symbol of Soviet decline to be tugged past the shoreside forts and luxury homes of Istanbul on its five-month journey to the Pacific.
Macau's harbor was never deep enough for the Varyag. The orphaned warship of a former superpower, with its distinct ski-jump-like bow for launching planes, wound up instead in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian. There, it has slowly been transformed into the first aircraft carrier of a future superpower. Now the world has a new set of concerns about the former Varyag. On Aug. 10 the newly refurbished carrier set sail from Dalian for its first sea trial. Its casino cover story long discarded, the ship will enter a wager with decidedly higher stakes: the projection of China's military power on the high seas.
The Varyag's launch comes at a fraught time. China's armed forces are modernizing military spending has grown by an annual average of 15% since 2000 and after a decadelong charm offensive in East and Southeast Asia, Beijing has begun taking a more aggressive stand on territorial disputes. Several factors are driving this tougher approach, including the possibility that disputed waters may have valuable energy reserves, a desire to challenge the regional influence of the U.S., the ever present influence of nationalism and a fear of looking weak before next year's leadership transition. "The Chinese attitude appears to have become substantially more assertive in character," says Clive Schofield, director of research at the University of Wollongong's Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security. "You see this across the board."
China's neighbors, particularly Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, have responded with tough talk and posturing of their own. Last year China and Japan sparred over islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers and both nations claim, known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. When Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain near the islands, China cried foul. Two weeks later Japan released the fisherman, who returned to a hero's welcome in China. This summer, Chinese warships passed through international waters near Okinawa, which has unsettled Tokyo. Japan's latest white paper on national defense said Chinese military modernization, increased activities in Asian waters and lack of transparency "are becoming a cause for concern in the region and within the international community."
The more contentious cockpit is the South China Sea. Its 3 million sq km are dotted by tiny islands, and many of its waters are thought to hold rich oil and natural-gas deposits. Tensions have been rising between China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea, and some of the other Asian states that assert sovereignty over parts of it. The Philippines, which says that Chinese ships have harassed its survey ships and fishing boats a half-dozen times since the spring, announced it would begin to refer to the area as the West Philippine Sea and sent its navy's flagship, the World War II era frigate Rajah Humabon, to patrol it. Vietnam accuses Chinese vessels of deliberately cutting, twice this summer, the cables of survey ships belonging to PetroVietnam. Hanoi says it is considering a possible reinstatement of the military draft and carried out live-fire drills in June. China responded with three days of naval exercises of its own.
The disputes over Asia's waters have drawn in the U.S. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the U.S. had a "national interest" in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and offered Washington's assistance as a mediator. China responded angrily that the U.S. was seeking to "internationalize" an issue that should be resolved among neighbors. Some observers figured that Beijing would take a less antagonistic approach in 2011, having seen how regional disputes invited greater U.S. involvement. "That hasn't happened," Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore said in June. "In fact, tensions have risen in the past two or three months, probably to a higher level than they've been at since the end of the Cold War."
On July 20, China and ASEAN announced nonbinding guidelines on how a settlement in the South China Sea might be pursued, but the differences have hardly narrowed. Cui Tiankai, a Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, warned that the U.S. was at risk of becoming entangled in a regional conflict if it did not work to restrain other states in the region. "I believe that individual countries are actually playing with fire," he told reporters in late June. "I hope that fire will not be drawn to the United States." In mid-July, General Chen Bingde, the Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), publicly complained to his U.S. counterpart, Admiral Mike Mullen, about U.S. military spending, maritime surveillance operations near China's borders and joint exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines that he called "ill timed." Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said after a four-day visit to China that he was not convinced that Beijing's military advancements were entirely defensive in nature, and he fretted that the strife over the South China Sea "could result in some kind of escalation, some kind of miscalculation an incident, a misunderstanding that would greatly heighten the stakes."