29 June 2011

China’s Worst-Kept Secret Naval Weapon

Amando Doronila, China’s Worst-Kept Secret Naval Weapon,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 28 June 2011.

SINGAPORE—ON June 8, the Hong Kong Commercial Daily News reported that Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), had confirmed that China was building an aircraft carrier, marking the first acknowledgement of the ship’s existence by the country’s secretive military.

The newspaper quoted General Chen as saying that the 300-meter refurbished Soviet carrier “is being built, but it has not been completed.” The paper quoted anonymous sources as saying, however, that the carrier would be launched by the end of June at the earliest, a year earlier than US military analysts expected.

The confirmation came on the same day China stepped up criticism of the Philippines in a burst of invectives over disputed waters in the South China Sea, calling on Manila to stop infringing on its sovereignty with irresponsible claims over the Spratly Islands. “China demands that the Philippines stop unilateral actions that damage China’s sovereignty and interests at sea and could lead to the expansion and complication of the South China Sea dispute, and stop issuing irresponsible comments that are inconsistent with facts,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei. The comments were China’s most vitriolic in weeks of tension as the Philippines denounced what it described as the increasing assertiveness of Chinese ships in the region since last March.

The Philippines has accused China of intrusions into its territory, citing six instances, including one in March when two Chinese ships tried to ram a Philippine survey ship.

The timing of the confirmation of the prospective launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, in the midst of the heightening tensions among countries with claims in the South China Sea, caused fear in the region of further Chinese aggressive naval actions to try to intimidate and stop explorations by rival claimant countries for marine and oil resources underneath the disputed waters. …

“An aircraft carrier is a symbol of the power of our navy,” said Gen. Xu Guangyo, now retired but who advises China’s government on its military modernization program.  “China should at least be on the same level as other permanent members of the UN Security Council who have carriers… It’s also a symbol of deterrence.  It’s like saying, ‘Don’t mess with me. Don’t think you can bully me.’ So it’s normal for us to want a carrier. I actually think it’s strange if China does not have one.”

But that’s not the way the smaller neighbors think of China’s current naval power. To them that is bullying and some are standing their ground, among them the Vietnamese and Filipinos who have denounced incursions of Chinese vessels inside their own territorial zones. …

According to Dr. Andrew Erickson, a China expert at the US Naval College, “China does not want to start a war, bur rather seeks to wield its growing military might to ‘win without fighting’ by deterring actions that it views as detrimental to its core national interests.” …

For more on Varyag’s going to sea and near-term Chinese deck aviation developments, 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 details on China’s first carrier 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 more on Chinese deck aviation programs and what motivates them, 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 Chinese defense industrial capabilities, 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).