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China coy about carrier, stealth fighters

world Updated: Apr 20, 2011 12:19 IST
Reshma Patil

On the golf course-strewn Sanya island in Hainan, Chinese tycoons joke that they have a nuclear submarine to protect their wealth. This summer, China's first aircraft carrier is likely to join the warships on this southern coast.

In southwest Chengdu, China's J-20 stealth fighter jet is reportedly taking off on its second test flights. The J-20 test hit the front page of a state newspaper on Tuesday under the vague headline 'mystery jet flies again'. China is alternating between denying and broadcasting the rapid modernisation of its southern air force and navy, stoking wariness of the secrecy surrounding its double-digit defence spending.

Beijing is showing a renewed pattern of giving a glimpse of its military muscle and then downplaying it with vague statements. The strategy keeps Chinese neighbours and the US wary and guessing the implications of Beijing claiming 'indisputable sovereignty' over the South China sea and islands.

"The next two decades will be China's golden age," David Guo, a scholar in Hainan said.

China's new maritime assertiveness coincides with the 'weakening of the US' and the rise of nationalism as an economically stronger Chinese public expect Beijing to reassert its territorial claims more forcefully, said Guo at the Hainan South China Sea Development Peace Foundation.

Scholars in Haikou, Hainan's capital, say that the oil-rich South China Sea was always a 'core interest' like Tibet and Taiwan even before Beijing described it as such last year and objected to American 'interference' there. They explain that Beijing did not raise disputes in the southern sea as vigorously in the past because it was preoccupied with Tibet, Taiwan and economic growth issues. The aircraft carrier and J-20 pictures are out at a time when the foreign ministry is reiterating its sovereignty in territorial disputes in the southern sea.

The unconfirmed J-20 test flight went viral on online military forums just days after Xinhua made public the first official photographs of aircraft carrier Varyag being rebuilt in Dalian.

However, when the heads of China and four emerging economies met for the BRICS summit in Sanya last week, the state-run Global Times headlined: Beijing refutes carrier claims'.

The choice of Sanya in Hainan province to host the summit was a symbolic gesture from a rising China. Hainan hosts an economic boom marked with skyrocketing property prices while it remains the centre of Chinese assertiveness in maritime disputes in the southern sea.

"Hainan is now seen as China's unsinkable aircraft carrier in the South China Sea,'' China expert Mohan Malik told HT from Honolulu. "It could also be the home port for China's aircraft carrier currently under construction. Sanya is where the largest submarine base is being built and it will play an important role in China's maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean aimed at protecting its sea lanes of communication."