China’s car­rier name

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics -

The en­tire nation of China ap­pears in­tox­i­cated lately with the im­mi­nent launch of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Navy’s first air­craft carr ier. In re­cent weeks, vir­tu­ally ev­ery me­dia out­let in the com­mu­nist state fea­tured re­ports, analy­ses and il­lus­tra­tions on the up­com­ing sea tri­als of the re­fur­bished Soviet ship as an un­mis­tak­able sym­bol for the dawn of Chinese naval re­vival, if not dom­i­nance, in the west­ern Pa­cific.

One prob­lem is that if the car­rier is a sym­bol for some­thing of great con­se­quence, the Chinese in­evitably re­sort to se­man­tics and names, and this ship has a name­sake that is noth­ing short of a Chinese fairy tale.

De­signed by the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, the car­rier orig­i­nally was named Riga af­ter the cap­i­tal of the Soviet So­cial­ist Repub­lic of Latvia to sym­bol­ize eth­nic unity un­der the Soviet regime. Yet when the Soviet Union was dis­in­te­grat­ing af­ter the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, Rus­sian na­tion­al­ism was on the rise, so the ship, still un­der con­struc­tion, was re­named Varyag in late 1990 to sym­bol­ize Rus­sian pride.

Varyag was the name of the renowned pro­tected cruiser in the czarist navy. Built in Penn­syl­va­nia by the ship­yard Wil­liam Cramp and Sons of Philadel­phia in 1899, the first Varyag served as a Rus­sian Im­pe­rial ad­mi­ralty’s cap­i­tal ship in the 1904 to 1905 Russo-Ja­panese War. On Feb. 9, 1904, while block­aded by a Ja­panese fleet in­side In­cheon har­bor, crews of Varyag scut­tled the prized ship to avoid a hu­mil­i­at­ing sur­ren­der, thus cre­at­ing a Rus­sian naval le­gend.

The Ja­panese later sal­vaged the Varyag from the bot­tom of the Yel­low Sea and re­fit­ted it to serve in the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Navy with the name of Soya. So Varyag sym­bol­izes much Rus­sian-Ja­panese his­tor­i­cal an­i­mos­ity.

This sym­bolic power did not go un­no­ticed by the Chinese gov­ern­ment. Be­fore the re­named Rus­sian air­craft car­rier was com­pletely built, the Soviet Union col­lapsed in 1992. The gi­gan­tic Varyag re­mained rud­der­less and with­out elec­tron­ics in a Ukrainian ship­yard wait­ing to be bought for scrap. In 1998, a Chinese com­pany linked to the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army bought the ship for $20 mil­lion. In March 2002, the be­he­moth was towed to the Chinese navy port of Dalian, a mere 300 miles away from the site of the orig­i­nal Varyag in In­cheon har­bor, Korea. It stands tall and proud, hav­ing been painted Chinese navy gray and out­fit­ted with ex­ten­sive new propul­sion, elec­tron­ics and weapons, mak­ing it al­most cer­tain to be­come China’s first air­craft car­rier.

The dock­ing of Varyag in Dalian is clearly a sym­bolic and can­tan­ker­ous ges­ture meant for Wash­ing­ton’s close ally in Asia, Ja­pan, Rus­sia’s old foe and China’s new strate­gic re­gional and mar­itime op­po­nent.

Yet the se­man­tics game did not stop there. It was widely re­ported that the re­fit­ted for­mer Rus­sian car­rier Varyag, once launched for sea tri­als this sum­mer, will be called Shi Lang, af­ter the last Chinese gen­eral to con­quer Tai­wan in 1683.

Tai­wan is clearly not amused. On May 2, amid all the air­craft car­rier hoopla in the com­mu­nist state, China Times, the lead­ing news­pa­per in demo­cratic Tai­wan, ran an editorial head­lined “China Should Not Name Car­rier Af­ter Con­queror of Tai­wan.”

Miles Yu can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.

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