China has begun sea trials of its latest piece of military hardware, a refitted Soviet aircraft carrier that has the potential to drastically alter the dynamics of power in the region.
The move, part of a huge naval modernisation programme undertaken by Beijing, which already includes submarines, destroyers and an anti-ship missile system, could lead to increased tension in a locality already taut from territorial disputes.
Named by the Chinese as the Shi Lang, the ship, originally called The Varyag, was built by the Soviet Navy in the late Eighties. After the fall of the Soviet Union, China purchased the vessel for $20 million from Ukraine under the pretence of turning it into a floating theme park. Having been towed through the Bosphorus, the ship finally reaching port in Dalian where the People’s Liberation Army Navy discreetly began a refit.
Nearly a decade later and the Shi Lang has put to sea, a move signalling a dramatic expansion of China’s military projection with implications for the region that could prove as sizable as the ship’s gargantuan hull.
For Eric Grove, Professor of Naval History at the University of Salford, the deployment of the Shi Lang reinforces the belief that the seas around China represent one of the globe’s major potential flashpoints, suggesting that the carrier could well push the new superpower closer to a direct confrontation with the other navies in the region, namely Japan, India and South Korea.
There is also the potential for a fracas with the biggest naval player in Asia, the US Navy, which keeps a constant regional presence thanks to its nuclear powered super carrier, the USS George Washington, based in Japan.
Speaking to The Huffington Post, he said: “There’s an interesting multi-polar balance emerging, with China, Japan, South Korea and India all trying to exert influence in the region. India in particular is going to be looking very closely at this development as India has a carrier programme of its own.”
“This could be the beginning of a naval race between China and India as both have ambitions and both have perceived interest which overlap in the Indian Ocean, especially given China’s interest in exploiting the economic resources of Africa.”
The South Korean Navy is also currently talking about a carrier programme, while the Japanese are building huge destroyers with the potential to land fixed wing aircraft. However it is Taiwan that perhaps has most to fear, the tiny island’s sovereignty disputed by the People’s Republic, who see it as part of the mainland.
Tellingly, Beijing has named the vessel after a 17th century Chinese admiral most notable for his conquest of Taiwan, while the increasing popularity of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan, which favours independence over eventual reunification with China, could provide a potential spark.
“If the DPP are elected, and take Taiwan to independence, it could push China into a major confrontation,” says Grove. “The Chinese would likely blockade Taiwan and then the Americans would come in.”
The launch of the Shi Lang also has more long-term implications with her refit just the first step in a bigger plan.
According to Grove: “They bought the ship off the Russians so they could cut their operational teeth. They are going to use this to learn how to operate carriers. From here, they’ll probably build some new ones. China is going to have a navy with a global reach.”
“They are putting a significant effort into their modernisation programme. They need a big navy to be a major regional actor and to dominate up to what they call the first and second island chains. They also have regional and extra-regional interest in safeguarding shipping moving through the Indian Ocean.”
“Whether it can be called an arms race is debatable, but there’s definitely a move between the countries of the Far East and south East Asia to expand their naval forces by moving to aircraft carrier ships. It is happening and it will happen more in the future.”
“The launch of the Shi Lang could well bring about an immediate shift in the region, while long-term it looks likely to be the beginning of a trend that could lead to a very different international balance in the region by 2030.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that China purchased the vessel for $200 million. The correct figure is $20 million.