Amid regional tensions, China's first aircraft carrier embarked on its inaugural sea trial on Aug. 10. According to the Chinese media, the 67,500 ton ex-Soviet aircraft carrier, Varyag, will be named Shi Lang, after the commander-in-chief of the Qing Dynasty fleets who had extensive experience in South China Sea and conquered Taiwan in 1681.
"By itself," says Ian Storey at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, "the ship does not erode the credibility of America's military presence in the region nor greatly increase China's power projection capabilities. Nevertheless, the vessel is a potent symbol of China's aspirations to become a global maritime power and is yet another indication the military balance of power is gradually shifting in China's favor."
The first sea trial of Varyag underlines China's naval aspirations and is a first step in China's journey toward building a viable carrier group. "If we consider our neighbors," stated Gen. Luo Yuan of China's Academy of Military Sciences, "India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014, so I believe that China needs at least three or maybe five aircraft carriers so we can defend our maritime interests effectively."
What is more important, "the refitting of the former Soviet aircraft carrier," reports Tania Branigan of Irish Times, "is part of China's broader naval modernization program, which includes heavy spending on submarines and the development of an anti-ship missile system. It comes amid growing competition with the U.S. and India, and a string of maritime disputes with China's Southeast Asian neighbors."
China's decision to launch its first aircraft carrier is fueling concerns among its neighbors in Asia. In its latest defense white paper, issued in early August, the Japanese government expressed concern over China's "assertive" approach in maritime disputes with neighboring countries. The 2011 Japanese Defense White Paper foresees the Chinese navy to increase activities around Japan and warns that China has acted "in a way seen as coercive" in disputes.
China's move is also stoking uneasiness in India. New Delhi is particularly worried by the projection of Chinese power into the Indian Ocean in a new way and a string of ports constructed by China in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. "The carrier will add a new dimension to the burgeoning Chinese navy, which could provide a major challenge to India in its backyard, the Indian Ocean," pronounced the Times of India, the day after the launch of Varyag.
The sailing of the first Chinese aircraft carrier is causing some of China's smaller neighbors in Southeast Asia to sweat as well.
"Vietnam and the Philippines have been facing problems with an aggressive Chinese Navy in the South China Sea, which China claims as its 'core interest'. Any conflict between the navies of China and the Philippines or Vietnam would be an unequal contest," says Carl Thayer at Australia's Defense Force Academy, "the presence of an aircraft carrier-the most versatile and powerful vessel a country can deploy-certainly won't ease such tensions."
Then there is Taiwan. The growing military imbalance between mainland China and Taiwan is becoming a major concern for Taiwanese leaders and defense officials. "On the day China began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier," writes Paul Mozur of the Wall Street Journal, "Taiwan made what can only be described as a provocative move, displaying its newest anti-ship cruise missile in front of an illustration of what appeared to be China's new carrier being hit by missiles. Above the missile was a sign that labeled the weapon an 'aircraft carrier killer'."
China is a country with more than 9,000 miles of coastline. Perhaps no one should be surprised that it is finally adding an aircraft carrier to its naval fleet-it is a natural outgrowth of China's rapid military expansion, fed by two decades of double-digit increases in Chinese defense budget. And as some military specialists noted, the symbolic significance of the launching of China's first aircraft carrier outweighs its practical significance, at least for now.
What is perhaps disquieting, however, is the fact the launching of China's first aircraft carrier comes at a time when Beijing is starting to take a more forceful approach on territorial disputes. It is China's new and tougher stand on the high seas and Beijing's resolve to acquire capability to control the South China Sea, not the aircraft carrier itself, which makes the rest of Asia fretful.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.