China is readying its first aircraft carrier and it is likely to be commissioned before the year is out. The warship is a Soviet era Varyag aircraft carrier, which China procured from Ukraine in 1998 in a half complete condition. Berthed at Dalian port in northeast China, it has undergone extensive refurbishing over the past nine years.
Taiwan’s defense ministry and Taiwan’s spy chief, Tsai Thesheng, who broke the news, have expectedly sounded alarm bells over Beijing’s naval build up. Both have reasons to view Communist China’s first aircraft carrier as a threat to the stability of Taiwan. Since becoming President, Ma Ying-jeou has lived up to the promise of being China-friendly and adopted a non-confrontational policy towards the mainland. Now all that may not change but there is going to be a new arms race in place to the apparent delight of merchants of fire power in the West, particularly the US of America. Taiwan is responding to the aircraft carrier threat with its own ‘stealth’ warship armed with guided-missiles; it will be ready next year.
The neighboring countries have reasons to be apprehensive and hope that Beijing will not indulge in any adventure that will dent its new found global respectability as an economic power in its own right.
Chinese jets modeled on Russian SU-33s will be based on Varyag. There is no clarity as to the number of jets. It is possible that People’s Liberation Army of China will take time to operate Varyag with its full complement of fighter jets.
China’s navy is also going in for a new type of nuclear ballistic missile submarine, Type 094 and the 093 nuclear attack submarine. This is a step towards acquiring a seaborne nuclear deterrent. The new submarines will also be capable of performing conventional strike and other special warfare requirements. Its eight new kilo class submarines are mostly berthed at a new base at Hainan Island. China has in all more than 60 submarines, 26 destroyers, 49 frigates, 27 large landing ships, 31 medium landing ships and 200 plus fast attack craft.
As it celebrated its 60th anniversary on 23rd of April with a display of YJ-62 naval cruise missile, the Chinese navy has clearly identified a three-fold long term goal. These are protection of sea lines that bring in the energy imports, defense of maritime interests in the territorial waters, disputed waters and beyond. China is already patrolling the Gulf of Aden, to protect its merchant vessels from piracy.
The growth of Chinese navy is directly related to the strategy for the ‘green water’ from Vladivostok to the Strait of Malacca, and the first island chain (these are a series of islands that stretch from Japan in the north, to Taiwan, and Philippines in the south – namely Aleutians, Kuriles, Ryukyus, Taiwan, Philippines, and Greater Sunda islands), and the second island chain (Bonins, Guam, Marianas, and Palau islands) by the mid-21st century. It has three major fleets (North Sea, East Sea, and South Sea Fleets), an aviation arm and marine units. Fleets are strategically located to the north in Qingdao, to the east in Ningbo, and to the south in Zhanjiang-providing the Chinese Navy with direct access to the Yellow Sea, Taiwan Strait, and South China Sea respectively.
South Sea Fleet units also include the Marine Force and its associated amphibious lift. Major surface combatant shipyards are located in Dalian, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hurdling. The Wuhan shipyard is responsible for construction of conventional submarines. The Huladao shipyard builds nuclear-powered attack and ballistic-missile submarines.
The 7,000-strong Chinese Naval Marines are geared to safeguarding China’s islands in the South China Sea. They are capable of amphibious raids. They are equipped with amphibious tanks and armored personnel carriers, howitzers, and multiple rocket launchers. The Marine’s Jingsah-class air cushion hybrid aircraft can cruise one meter above the water at speeds of 120 knots or more.
There is little doubt that there are gaping holes in the Chinese navy’s capability and its modernization drive will depend more on ‘acquisitions’ than on indigenous technology in the short to medium term. It will look to Israel and France besides the US for technology in areas like aerial-refueling, modern radars, anti-submarine warfare systems and weapons, medium-range air defense systems, and electronic-warfare systems. China’s ship requirements will include modern multi-warfare capable hulls. China also will have to look for replacements for its aging conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.