Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chinese Carrier Kerfuffle

China made headlines this week with the launch of their first aircraft carrier. The move also made waves on op-ed pages as a host of columnists pointed to the launch as yet another sign of China's growing international clout, military might and territorial ambitions. Launching an aircraft carrier is being seen as a direct challenge to American control of the seas, since the United States has dominated the aircraft carrier field since the end of World War II; the US State Department added a little fuel to this fire on Wednesday by sending a formal request to China to explain why they feel the need for “this type of equipment”.

The ship in question is “Chinese” inasmuch as China currently owns it, but the ship began life back in the old Soviet Union as the Varyag. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Varyag spent years rusting away in a Ukrainian shipyard until being sold and towed to China (the Ukrainians sold the Varyag less its engines) where it sat rusting in another shipyard, possibly to become a floating casino in Macau, before the Chinese decided to refurbish it and put it into service as their very first aircraft carrier. Given that lineage, the Chinese aircraft carrier starts to sound a lot less intimidating. Add to that account two other stories from earlier in the year: an account from the Washington Post in January about how the Chinese air force remains dependent on Russian-built jet engines since the domestically-made versions just don't perform as well, and reports that the crews of the ships the People's Liberation Army Navy sent to participate in anti-piracy operations off of Somalia reported severe morale and supply problems due to the length and distance of their mission; the Chinese navy sounds even less formitable still.

The Varyag, or whatever the Chinese eventually decide to call her, isn't itself a game-changer in terms of naval power around the globe, but it plays nicely into an existing narrative of a China growing in economic/industrial power and a China that is becoming more aggressive with its neighbors. According to reports, the Chinese plan to field three carrier battlegroups by 2050. Of course 2050 is a long way off, forty years from now the aircraft carrier as a ship design may very well be obsolete. It also supposes that China will continue on an unbroken path as an emerging superpower, which is a pretty big assumption. It is easy to look at China, which recently became the world's second-largest economy, and presume that this is what will happen. But it ignores potentially serious problems within China that could derail their ascendancy: climbing rates of inflation, a potential economic housing bubble, a growing disparity between rich and poor and simmering ethnic tensions. In his new book, The Next Decade, George Friedman of the geopolitical risk group Stratfor makes a compelling case for the idea that China may now be near its peak of power, with internal problems dragging the country backward by the end of the decade.

It is a viewpoint to consider while reading tales about China's second-hand carrier.

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