As I’m sure everyone have heard by now, Varyag began sea trials 2 days ago. We have not seen pictures of its sea trial, but have seen pictures of the empty dock and the no fly/sail zone that China has established (seen below). Before continuing, I do apologize if this piece becomes a little nonsensical, because I wrote this at quite a late hour.
When I look at this moment, I see this as a representation of China’s growing affluence and power. Back when WWII just finished, the Nationalists had plans to build aircraft carriers to reflect its new found status as one of the members of the Permanent Five in the United Nations. Due to their corruption and incompetence, they lost out to the far smaller and less well equipped Communist forces. When the Communists took over, China was a country that had been pillaged for over 100 years by outside forces. Back then, China was poor and did not have any modern industry to speak of. In the 50s, Soviets provided technical aid in 156 industries for China. For all of the follies of China’s adoption of communism, that was probably the second most significant event in China’s modernisation. From that point onward until the death of Mao, the Chinese society was stuck in a constant period of ideological struggle, war and famine. By the time Deng Xiaoping came to power, China was completely broke. And despite the Soviet encirclement of China at that time and its desire to “teach Vietnam a lesson”, Deng cut back on military expenditure year after year. Deng had been a member of PLA since 1927. And despite been exiled twice by Mao, PLA’s support for Deng allowed him to grab power ahead of Mao’s appointed successor Hua Guofeng. The war against Vietnam in 1979 showed the inadequacies in PLA. Even so, Deng recognized that economical development and modernization through engaging the leading world economies were the only way out. Years of putting communist ideology and militarism on top did not make China a stronger country. Deng’s method of humble/pragmatic foreign policy, reduced diplomatic footprint and emphasis in joining the world economy have resulted in over 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth and national power.
And now that we get to 2011, China has the money, the will, the shipbuilding prowess and naval technology to not only refit Varyag, but also build a few aircraft carriers. I think when one looks at China, it can support a large enough military budget to have a couple of aircraft carriers groups without been a burden to the economy. It can build such a fleet relatively cheaply, because it has a very competitive shipbuilding industry and can procure most of the subsystem locally.
Militarily speaking, it already has enough modern ships to form the escorts of a carrier group. It will also have domestic naval fighter, trainers and helicopters that it can operate on a carrier. Everything is in place for PLAN to start the formation of its first carrier group.
And contrary to some claims, China does have many reasons to have aircraft carriers. It is the second largest economy in the world and will probably become the largest in the next 25 years. It has soft power to influence near every country, but does not have the hard power to get to most of those countries. It is humiliating for some Chinese people that China still does not have a carrier when even a small country like Thailand has one. It has learnt from USN that aircraft carrier could be a sign of soft power. PLAN has already been parading the new Type 920 hospital ship and the Type 071 LPD around the countries in Indian Ocean. Aircraft carrier will be the ultimate display of power that China can deploy in humanitarian crisis. And obviously, I have also talked the military hard power needs like protecting its sea lanes and overseas investments.
I do have certain caution for China as it moves forward into carrier age. Deng Xiaoping’s policies have paved ways for years of development, but China is still a poor country when one looks at its average income level. As the world’s economy is teetering on entering another economic downturn, China’s overly investment dependent economy will suffer. China should develop a blue water fleet with the goal of protect its economic interest and citizens around the world rather than trying to take control from America. It has already seen the strong reactions from ASEAN countries to its more aggressive foreign policy. Although I do think that China will be eventually accepted by these countries as the top dog in this region, it should not fall in the trap of using military power to interfere with other countries’ policies.
So as Varyag starts its sea trials, I hope that China will continue Deng’s policy of putting its people first. The emergence of the first Chinese carrier is a demonstration of China’s growing economic strength and industrial base. While this is a good time for the Chinese leadership and Chinese people to celebrate, China should continue to focus on economical development above all.