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China’s fortress on water

The grey hull of China’s first aircraft carrier loomed in plain sight of camera-toting warship fans and residents of northeast Dalian long before the military gave the first confirmation this month of its worst-kept 67,500-tonne secret. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: Jun 19, 2011 00:44 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

The grey hull of China’s first aircraft carrier loomed in plain sight of camera-toting warship fans and residents of northeast Dalian long before the military gave the first confirmation this month of its worst-kept 67,500-tonne secret.

“There, hang kong mujian (aircraft carrier),” said a man in olive shirt peering from a third-floor glass door of the Ikea mall in Dalian, at the red cranes sticking out of China’s strategic shipyard.

“The carrier view is better from the other window,’’ he advised this reporter on gawking from the store’s bedding section at the 990-feet-long evidence of China’s naval ambitions for its dispute-ridden maritime backyard to the Indian and Pacific oceans.

By some estimates, the carrier — once camouflaged as a future floating casino — will be refitted by July for trials in southern Sanya. A concrete carrier model has also popped up in central Wuhan.

The Shi Lang, the Soviet-era Varyag now reportedly renamed after a Qing dynasty conquerer of Taiwan, is also visible from the elevated roads of this Hyderabad-sized metropolis home to massive hi-tech zones with outsourcing ambitions.

Beijing’s government advisers on oceanic strategy say one carrier is not enough.

“Outsiders should get accustomed to China’s rise,’’ South Asia strategist Hu Shisheng at the state-run China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told HT. Hu estimated that China needs minimum nine carriers including three in operation, and over a dozen in future.

“As a global power, we should be able to give a security guarantee to our neighbours,’’ he said, listing North Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar which has a coastline only along the Indian Ocean.

“The Chinese acquisition of a few aircraft carriers would be the realisation of dreams to operate in the Pacific and Indian ocean,’’ said strategist Mohan Malik at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii. “It will also enable China to provide security to North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Iran and others.”

This warship will first be deployed only for trials and training. But China’s rising naval assertiveness in disputed waters since the last two years is already making its rivals like Japan, Vietnam and Philippines warily edge closer to the US.

PLA official Qi Jianguo recently said that China needs an aircraft carrier as a status symbol comparable to permanent members of the UN Security Council and to face the “complex maritime problems’’ in the southern and eastern sea and Taiwan straits. China is also testing a J-20 stealth fighter jet, and some reports estimate that a carrier-killer ballistic missile is in the works.

This week, as maritime disputes with Vietnam hit a shrill note, China’s largest 3,000-tonne civilian maritime patrol ship set sail into the South China Sea and Singapore to inspect foreign vessels and ‘protect sovereignty’.

The state media revealed that China will expand its maritime surveillance fleet to 520 ships and 15,000 personnel by 2020, up from 260 ships and 9,000 personnel today.

China insists that its military modernisation is for defensive purposes and that its carrier will not enter others’ territorial waters. However, strategist Li Bin at Tsinghua University recently told the nationalist Global Times that it’s ‘hard to say that the aircraft carrier will never go to territories outside China’.

For now, experts say that China’s ambition does not match its reality and capability. “For a decade or so, Beijing will not have more than two aircraft carriers and that won’t be enough for 24/7 global coverage,’’ said Malik. “Needless to say, China's drive to build a large ocean-going naval fleet will lead to the emergence of a like-minded coalition of maritime powers to counter the Chinese navy.”

China’s PLA chief recently admitted being 20 years behind the US military. “I feel very sad after visiting the US because I feel and know how poor our equipments are and how underdeveloped we remain,’’ general Chen Bingde was quoted saying on a visit to Washington.

Several Chinese residents told HT that their nationalistic pride in the warship rising in Dalian’s skyline is not aimed at India but at their historic rival Japan. Though India has a disputed border with China, locals said they consider India less threatening in comparison to Japan.

Dalian and its Port Arthur have a history of Japanese occupation (1905-45). More recently, old maritime disputes with Japan have sparked markedly aggressive reactions from China.

“India is a friendly country,’’ said a taxi driver who pointed out the carrier’s location. “But these days India is getting so friendly with Japan, heh?’’

First Published: Jun 18, 2011 22:32 IST