Austin Ramzy, “Troubled Waters: Why China’s Navy Makes Asia Nervous,” Time, 11 August 2011.
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. …
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.” …
…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. …
For the latest on the ex-Varyag’s sea trials, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Realizes Carrier Dream,” The Diplomat, 10 August 2011.
For the longer analysis on which that post is based, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s ‘Starter Carrier’ Goes to Sea,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 43 (9 August 2011).
For an assessment of the larger implications of China’s deck aviation development, see Abraham M. Denmark, Andrew S. Erickson, and Gabriel Collins, “Should We Be Afraid of China’s New Aircraft Carrier? Not yet.,” Foreign Policy, 27 June 2011.
For operational aspects of China’s first carrier-capable aircraft, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “Flying Shark” Gaining Altitude: How might new J-15 strike fighter improve China’s maritime air warfare ability?,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 38 (7 June 2011).
For drivers and constraints concerning Chinese deck aviation, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “The ‘Flying Shark’ Prepares to Roam the Seas: Strategic pros and cons of China’s aircraft carrier program,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 35 (18 May 2011).
For relevant defense industrial factors, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “LNG Carriers to Aircraft Carriers? Assessing the potential for crossover between civilian and military shipbuilding in China,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 12 (18 December 2010).