WILL CHINA RULE THE WATERS?
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