China’s carrier name
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 email@example.com.