India Today - - UPFRONT - By Ananth Kr­ish­nan and San­deep Un­nithan

The 70,000-tonne ship, decked in red flags, emerged out of the mist on a cool and sunny morn­ing at Dalian har­bour. Its ar­rival was three days late—it missed the PLA Navy’s April 23 an­niver­sary—but for China’s lead­ers, it was well worth the wait. The un­veil­ing of the ship, China’s yet-to-be-chris­tened first home­grown air­craft car­rier (known sim­ply as Type 001A now) has made waves around Asia. It’s only the sec­ond car­rier in the fleet of the PLA navy (PLAN), join­ing the Liaon­ing, a re­fit­ted ver­sion of a Soviet-era Ukrainian ves­sel, the Varyag.

China has long looked on en­vi­ously, not just at Amer­ica’s 10 air­craft car­rier strike groups that strut­ted around the Pa­cific—and on oc­ca­sion sailed right into the Tai­wan Strait to make a point—but even at In­dia, whose air­craft car­ri­ers were a pow­er­ful sym­bol of its navy’s dom­i­nant pres­ence in the In­dian Ocean. Now, China’s strate­gic ex­perts be­lieve, the bal­ance of power in Asia is shift­ing.

Type 001A (soon to be named the ‘Shan­dong’ af­ter the eastern Chi­nese prov­ince, say re­ports) was built by China Ship­build­ing In­dus­try Corp (CSIC), a state-run be­he­moth which is the back­bone of China’s vast home­grown ship­build­ing in­dus­try. It may be de­ployed by 2020, just five years af­ter the first bolts were fas­tened on to its hull. And more car­ri­ers are on the way. In the Jiang­nan ship­yard near Shang­hai, the China State Ship­build­ing Corp (CSSC), an­other state-run con­struc­tion gi­ant, is work­ing on a more ad­vanced car­rier that will hold more J-15 fighter jets, as well as

China is fast mov­ing to­wards a six­car­rier fleet in stark con­trast to In­dia’s de­layed pro­gramme

more de­vel­oped radar and air de­fence mis­siles.

Navy ad­mi­ral Yin Zhuo says China will need “five to six” air­craft car­ri­ers in the next decade and be­yond, as it re­quires “two car­rier strike groups in the West Pa­cific Ocean and two in the In­dian Ocean” in ad­di­tion to two for its pe­riph­ery in the South and East China Seas. China is al­ready lay­ing the in­fra­struc­ture in prepa­ra­tion for this blue-wa­ter navy, es­pe­cially in the In­dian Ocean. Its first over­seas mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity, in Dji­bouti near the Gulf of Aden, opened last year, while Beijing is build­ing and manag­ing ports in Pak­istan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Sey­chelles and Dar­win, Aus­tralia.

The speed with which China is mov­ing to­wards a six-car­rier fleet stands in stark con­trast to In­dia’s de­layed pro­gramme. In­dia planned two car­ri­ers to re­place the Bri­tish-ori­gin Vikrant and Vi­raat, and has pur­sued a three-car­rier navy con­cept at least since the 1980s. This plan has never been re­alised. It was first scaled down dur­ing the eco­nomic down­turn of the 1990s to two mod­est-sized car­ri­ers. In the in­terim, In­dia pur­chased the ex-Rus­sian car­rier, the 44,000 tonne Ad­mi­ral Gor­shkov, de­liv­ered in 2013 af­ter over a five-year de­lay and mas­sive cost over­runs. The rechris­tened Vikra­ma­ditya now re­mains the sole In­dian car­rier (Vi­raat was re­tired ear­lier this year). Ap­provals for con­struc­tion of the first indige­nous air­craft car­rier (IAC) be­gan in 1999. The pro­ject was fi­nally launched 14 years later, but de­lays have pushed com­mis­sion­ing to at least 2018 or be­yond, al­most two decades af­ter work be­gan. Plans for a sec­ond air­craft car­rier, the IAC-2, which could be a nu­clear-pow­ered car­rier of over 60,000 tonnes, have been fur­ther pushed into the next decade.

As China cel­e­brated its suc­cess this month, its ex­perts didn’t miss the chance to high­light In­dia’s trou­bles. “The In­dian navy’s dream of hav­ing three air­craft car­ri­ers has fallen flat be­cause it over­es­ti­mated its R&D ca­pa­bil­ity and the coun­try’s over­all strength, and un­der­took an ex­ces­sively mas­sive strat­egy that even­tu­ally got stranded,” sur­mised Liu Kui, an of­fi­cer of the Naval Equip­ment Re­search In­sti­tute of PLAN, in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished on the PLA’s of­fi­cial web­site.

Liu also stressed on the need to strengthen civil­ian in­dus­tries, as they are ul­ti­mately key to mil­i­tary strength. The CSSC has since the 1980s built 22 dry docks over 300 me­tres long and six docks over 480 me­tres, giv­ing China the big­gest dock ca­pac­ity in the world. Now, five out of 10 of the world’s busiest ports are in China. As Liu put it, “The fu­ture of war isn’t just about the mil­i­tary, but con­cerns how the whole na­tion de­vel­ops.”

SEA KING China’s first indige­nous air car­rier, Type 001A, at its launch in the Dalian har­bour

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