Troubled Waters: Why China's Navy Makes Asia Nervous

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Imaginechina / AP

It's a start The Varyag is a symbol of China's increasing might

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In such a heated environment, China's new aircraft carrier will stoke fresh fears. The ship has yet to be given a Chinese name, but some mainland netizens are calling it Shi Lang, after the 17th century Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan. Even if Beijing eventually chooses to call the vessel something more subtle, the message to the region will be clear — China's ability to back up its territorial claims is growing.

Military analysts caution that the carrier itself is not a game changer. It is, after all, built from a scrapped 26-year-old hull. The ship may take at least five years after setting sail to become fully operational, says Richard Bitzinger, an expert on Asian militaries and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore; even then, it may be used just for training. Once the ship begins trials, pilots will have to practice taking off and landing from a moving deck, and crews learn to handle the complexity of a vessel for which the Chinese have no experience. But, as Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, puts it, "China has to start somewhere. A newlywed couple wants a starter home, a newly rising great power wants a starter carrier." Analysts believe that as the PLA navy learns how to operate the former Varyag, China will begin building aircraft carriers from scratch — perhaps as many as four. This is the biggest significance of the vessel now being refurbished in Dalian. "It is indicative of China's intentions to break out," says Bitzinger.

For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will remain the dominant military power in Asia. It spends six times what China does on defense and has a long history of operating carriers. The U.S. commissioned its first in 1934 and now has 11 nuclear-powered flattops. Each can carry more than 80 aircraft and simultaneously launch and land several each minute. Combined with submarines, guided-missile cruisers, destroyers and supply ships, the Nimitz-class carrier group is one of the world's foremost military forces, far more powerful than anything China will be able to organize for decades.

But a straight comparison between the U.S. and China is misleading, says Erickson, "unless one envisions an all-out global conflict between the two, which fortunately remains virtually inconceivable." Instead, China is focused on blocking any effort by Taiwan to achieve full independence. China's naval development has been concentrated on what military experts call "antiaccess" or "area denial" capabilities, which would prevent the U.S. from coming to the aid of Taiwan in the event of a conflict. To that end, China has developed an intimidating array of missiles including a new "carrier killer," a long-range, land-based ballistic missile capable of hitting moving ships that General Chen first publicly acknowledged during Mullen's China trip in July.

China has also been able to focus on the projection of military power elsewhere, with cross-strait tensions easing following the election of the mainland-friendly Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's President in 2008. Compared with the PLA navy's North Sea and East Sea fleets, the South Sea fleet "has received a major jump in attention and funding in the past several years," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. "In addition to the upgrade of existing combatant vessels and submarines, we've also seen the deployment of additional military personnel, patrol ships and submarines." The biggest addition will be the aircraft carrier, which Kleine-Ahlbrandt expects will be sent to operate in the South China Sea. "American military officers tend to brush off [the Varyag] and say it's old, technically outdated, basically just a sitting target," says Storey. "I think the view in Southeast Asia is quite different. It's going send a message to Southeast Asian countries that China is serious about upholding its territorial claims in the South China Sea."

The Confidence Gap
China is playing hardball on the diplomatic front too. Beijing cut off military-to-military ties with the U.S. over arms sales to Taiwan, only resuming them in late 2010 to prepare for President Hu Jintao's state visit to the U.S. Unlike the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to a robust set of rules and hotlines to keep an incident at sea from touching off a nuclear war, Beijing and Washington have no comparable agreement. In a recent report by the Australian-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, authors Rory Medcalf and Raoul Heinrichs list more than a dozen incidents at sea between naval forces or their proxies in the western Pacific. They note that without more communication and active confidence-building measures by all sides, increased naval activity in the area raises the risk of wider hostilities. "While the chance that such incidents will lead to major military clashes should not be overstated, the drivers — in particular China's frictions with the United States, Japan and India — are likely to persist and intensify," they write. "As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict."

For now, however, there isn't any particular mood of belligerence in Dalian, where the former Varyag sits dockside within view of an Ikea store and the site of a new Sam's Club. There's just a feeling that it's high time the world's most populous nation took its rightful place on the high seas. Residents recall when the carrier was towed in nearly a decade ago, a rusted shell with little obvious potential as a warship. Today they scoff at the thought that other countries should be worried. "That thing was a piece of trash that even Ukraine didn't want," says a worker at a nearby construction site. "For a nation of 1.3 billion people, it's definitely not enough. We need much more." It's that notion, and not the aircraft carrier itself, that makes the rest of the world nervous.

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