Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why China's Navy Makes Asia Nervous

Article by Time. See full article by clicking on this.

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.

The Varyag's launch comes at a fraught time. China's armed forces are modernizing — military spending has grown by an annual average of 15% since 2000 — and after a decadelong charm offensive in East and Southeast Asia, Beijing has begun taking a more aggressive stand on territorial disputes. Several factors are driving this tougher approach, including the possibility that disputed waters may have valuable energy reserves, a desire to challenge the regional influence of the U.S., the ever present influence of nationalism and a fear of looking weak before next year's leadership transition. "The Chinese attitude appears to have become substantially more assertive in character," says Clive Schofield, director of research at the University of Wollongong's Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security. "You see this across the board."

China's neighbors, particularly Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, have responded with tough talk and posturing of their own. Last year China and Japan sparred over islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers and both nations claim, known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. When Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain near the islands, China cried foul. Two weeks later Japan released the fisherman, who returned to a hero's welcome in China. This summer, Chinese warships passed through international waters near Okinawa, which has unsettled Tokyo. Japan's latest white paper on national defense said Chinese military modernization, increased activities in Asian waters and lack of transparency "are becoming a cause for concern in the region and within the international community."

The more contentious cockpit is the South China Sea. Its 3 million sq km are dotted by tiny islands, and many of its waters are thought to hold rich oil and natural-gas deposits. Tensions have been rising between China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea, and some of the other Asian states that assert sovereignty over parts of it. The Philippines, which says that Chinese ships have harassed its survey ships and fishing boats a half-dozen times since the spring, announced it would begin to refer to the area as the West Philippine Sea and sent its navy's flagship, the World War II — era frigate Rajah Humabon, to patrol it. Vietnam accuses Chinese vessels of deliberately cutting, twice this summer, the cables of survey ships belonging to PetroVietnam. Hanoi says it is considering a possible reinstatement of the military draft and carried out live-fire drills in June. China responded with three days of naval exercises of its own.

Surface Tension
The disputes over Asia's waters have drawn in the U.S. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the U.S. had a "national interest" in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and offered Washington's assistance as a mediator. China responded angrily that the U.S. was seeking to "internationalize" an issue that should be resolved among neighbors. Some observers figured that Beijing would take a less antagonistic approach in 2011, having seen how regional disputes invited greater U.S. involvement. "That hasn't happened," Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore said in June. "In fact, tensions have risen in the past two or three months, probably to a higher level than they've been at since the end of the Cold War."

On July 20, China and ASEAN announced nonbinding guidelines on how a settlement in the South China Sea might be pursued, but the differences have hardly narrowed. Cui Tiankai, a Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, warned that the U.S. was at risk of becoming entangled in a regional conflict if it did not work to restrain other states in the region. "I believe that individual countries are actually playing with fire," he told reporters in late June. "I hope that fire will not be drawn to the United States." In mid-July, General Chen Bingde, the Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), publicly complained to his U.S. counterpart, Admiral Mike Mullen, about U.S. military spending, maritime surveillance operations near China's borders and joint exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines that he called "ill timed." Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said after a four-day visit to China that he was not convinced that Beijing's military advancements were entirely defensive in nature, and he fretted that the strife over the South China Sea "could result in some kind of escalation, some kind of miscalculation — an incident, a misunderstanding that would greatly heighten the stakes."

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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