Is It The First Step On Another Long March?
The People's Republic of China's new carrier was bought from the Ukraine for $20m in an auction. She started life as a Soviet 'aircraft carrying heavy cruiser', with building starting in the mid 1980s. As the USSR collapsed, and by the time she was auctioned off, she had been eviscerated, and carried the name 'Varyag'. Over the subsequent ten or so years, China refitted her in the Dalian Shipyard.
August 2011 saw her first open-sea trials, carrying the name 'Shi Lang' (East Wind).
A few commentators doubted that China would finish the project, but those who can begin to understand the Chinese mentality know that they seek to surpass the US economically and militarily, and have been driving hard to build their strengths in all these arenas.
The strategy of the PLA Navy has altered from that of an insignificant coastal defence force to that of a superpower with global oceanic reach. Projection of power with a worldwide reach mandates aircraft carriers. Carriers are very visible, and offer a strong image of naval and airborne strength.
Fast jet carriers need a quantum leap in sophistication and systems integration than do Harrier carriers. Hence the doubts over China's plans.
The Chinese commitment to joining the fast-jet carrier nations requires massive commitment - the US has been building carriers for eighty years, and the industrial capability to build large platforms takes a long time to establish. The Chinese are leap-frogging - with a basic carrier shell they can learn the fitting-out stage and improve it, just as they have done with so many industries - trucks, trains, planes, consumer electronics. Ships hulls are not difficult to build (if not nuclear powered), and they did buy a set of plans with the Varyag.
Military China-watchers have known for some time that China was serious about this investment. There have been plenty of jokes about the Concrete Carrier they constructed in the Oriental Park in Shanghai, but the fact is that building a carrier is one thing, operating one efficiently 24 x 7 in all weathers when under attack is quite another. The pilots, aircrew and flight operations controllers have to be trained. Schools and lecturers are needed. But first you have to build the schools. A whole logistics infrastructure has to be created. It really is a huge task, and China is not flinching.
China is clearly in the game, though it will be several years before an effective carrier group can be operational and a credible threat. China plays a long game, with strategic planning which may look a century into the future.
The Taiwan Connection
Shi-Lang was Commander-in-Chief of the Manchu fleet in the 17th century during the Ming-Qing dynasty and conquered Taiwan. Will the first aircraft carrier's name prove to be prophetic?
It is clear that naval tensions in the Far East are intensifying, and with the ongoing dispute with Taiwan over the Spratley Islands,, further announcements are expected.