Clarrisa Hambro-Drummond writes from Hong Kong: Lots of back-slapping and spitting (the Chinese wheeler dealer equivalent of hi-fives) this week when the people in Beijing announced that China’s first aircraft carrier has entered service.
It may have no jets, no helicopters and no pilots but it packs the biggest symbolic military punch in these parts since Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto ruled the waves seventy odd years ago. There’s a connection – we’ll get to that later – but first the carrier of the week.
She’s 300 metres long. To put that in perspective, Big John, officially the American general-purpose carrier the USS John F Kennedy, built in the 1960s, is about the same size and in its earlier fixed-wing aircraft role carried 80 jets.
The Chinese ship, the Liaoning does not have aircraft. One day maybe, but not yet. But the Chinese have no doubts that the ship is a military game-changer in the region.
‘Having the aircraft carrier enter the ranks will be of important significance in raising the overall fighting capacity of our nation’s navy to a modern level.’
All good stuff, but this ship is in no way ready to form the centre-piece of a carrier battle group. Without that, a carrier is worthless. It cannot attack, cannot sustain its role and cannot be defended. But this is not a PR job.
The Liaoning is the start of something in the Chinese ambition for regional dominance that cannot be ignored. Ironically, she has come about in the Chinese Order of Battle through not very subtle double dealing.
The Liaoning was not built in China. She was Russian, or more exactly, a USSR navy project. She was the unfinished Varyag and lying in a graving dock in Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Enter the Chinese.
They could not easily take delivery of an aircraft carrier for all sorts of internationally political reasons. The new Russia saw China as a potential enemy. It was never going to sell her an aircraft carrier whatever its basic condition – after all the HQ of the vulnerable Soviet fleet, the Tikiflot, was just round the corner in Vladivostok.
But while the new Russia was trying to get its political house in order in Moscow, far away in Ukraine, certain deals were possible. Ukrainian governors and military commanders were selling off anything that could be carried to almost anyone who turned up with a low-loader or a white van. But a carrier was different. Not for long.
In Hong Kong, recently restored to China from the British, but still the commercial deal-making centre of the Far East, a bunch of businessmen and the Chinese government got together in a blissfully simple piece of maotai inspired chicanery.
The businessmen would tell the Russian-Ukrainians they wanted to buy the partly completed carrier not as a warship of course, but as a floating casino to be moored off the gambling colony of Macao. That would be OK for everyone.
The deal was done and the ship was towed to China as not so much a floating gambling joint, more a step-change in a Chinese game to be played for much higher stakes. The Chinese Navy now had what it had wanted for decades: a carrier that could do for them what Big John and the ten other carriers had done for America: a means of force projection.
The timing of this week’s announcement could not be more appropriate. This is the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. But China has cancelled celebrations to mark the day. It has done so because China and Japan are at each other’s diplomatic and commercial throats over conflicting territorial claims in the East China Sea.
Even the mostly respected Economist is asking if Japan and China really would go to war over a couple of rocks in the sea. The answer is that they wouldn’t go to war over rocks, but they may think it worthwhile to get heavy over the undoubtedly enormous resources of oil and gas in the area.
You own the rocks, you own the economic zone necessary for the exploitation of those resources.
To emphasise the stakes here, the Chinese Defence Ministry has made the point that the ship will develop China’s sea-borne capacity to handle what it calls ‘non-traditional security threats’ and that means ‘defending the interests of state sovereignty, security and development’.
Should we be bothered? Yes. But hardly surprised. China has one of the longer coast lines of any nation with real and imagined enemies. It faces Japan, South Korea and more obviously, a United States that it is publicly committed to building up its already considerable Pacific military capability. It has started work on establishing a new military base in Australia’s Northern Territories.
Of immediate international concern, is the conflict with Japan that is sparking contrived and spontaneous riots in both countries. Japan’s biggest ally is America. The American fleet in the region is being reinforced.
China cannot handle that without airpower at sea.
But for years to come it will not have that naval air power. It would in normal circumstances take some five to ten years to build an aircraft based squadron system of plane, deck equipment, aircrews, deck and hangar crews, back up and support systems plus the very large number of surface and sub-surface escort ships and submarines needed to maintain and defend a single carrier.
Moreover, one carrier does not make a continuous battle group. The average carrier cannot operate for much more than four or five months in every year without sometimes very long maintenance periods alongside and even refits that can take up to a couple of years.
The rule of thumb is one carrier at sea, the other in refit.
So China is not about to steam the seas and humble the rest of the region. But China is China. It does things by surprise. It is capable – with its present astronomically increased military budget – of achieving more than can ever be done in so-called sophisticated Western spheres.
In a few weeks’ time, there will be major changes in the Chinese leadership. In a small way, the new carrier is a symbol of what may come next: a more adventurous state.
And, back to the Japanese admiral. Maybe he guessed right after Pearl Harbor when he was talking about America, but could so easily have been thinking ahead to modern China,
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”