Risk of a regional arms race
China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, finally set sail for a trial run on Wednesday, a decade after the country purchased the Soviet-era refitted ship. It left the port of Dalian in northeast Liaoning and was at sea for an unspecified time, which could have been as short as one hour, according to Xinhua News Agency and Reuters.
China bought the empty hulk from Ukraine in 1998 and refurbished it at a shipyard in Dalian. The 60,000-metric-ton conventionally-powered carrier has been equipped with an indigenous Chinese engine and is able to carry 2,000 crew members and 52 aircraft.
With this remarkable achievement, China becomes the third country in Asia after India and Thailand to own a carrier, the most powerful vessel at sea. In total, nine other countries possess one or more of the mega-ships, with the U.S. possessing 11.
The Chinese Defense Ministry has insisted, however, that the carrier is intended purely for the purposes of training, scientific research and experimentation. This has been widely viewed as a move to appease rising concerns from neighboring countries over its ever-growing ambition to buttress its naval power.
The ministry argues that China is the only permanent member of the United National Security Council that lacks carriers while having extensive maritime assets to defend.
An aircraft carrier can be employed for vast operational purposes and adds considerable weight to a naval force that already includes submarines and warships. Its mere presence represents military aspiration and might.
China is reported to be constructing two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai. If they are completed on schedule by 2015, the world’s second-largest economy will be joining other naval powerhouses with a fleet of aircraft carriers.
When they become operational, China’s maritime operational capabilities could expand to the Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean. In effect, it will have a greater say in international military missions.
It also raises the risk of a China-U.S. clash at sea near the Korean Peninsula. As South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asian countries are involved in territorial spats with China in the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea, jitters about China ramping up its naval force are growing. Vietnam, for example, is already bolstering its submarine capabilities.
These developments could trigger an unprecedented arms race in the region.