Aircraft carriers are the big swinging ships of naval power. One reason that Beijing has been so insistent about the U.S. keeping its carriers out of the Yellow Sea (successfully on one occasion this year, not so with the more recent U.S.-South Korean naval exercises) is that carriers are a blatant display of the ability to project power far from home. It was embarrassing that Washington could do that but not Beijing. It has been widely assumed outside China that part of the PLA’s much-scrutinized rapid expansion of its navy would include a first carrier, and some circumstantial evidence has suggested that work was under way.
Now Japan’s Asahi newspaper has turned up the first Chinese confirmation of that being the case, having spotted a line buried in a State Oceanic Administration annual report published, remarkably, last May but, even more remarkably, overlooked by the rest of the world until now (that assumption subject to subsequent testing by WikiLeaks, of course).
South Korean intelligence sources believe two 50,000-60,000-ton conventionally powered carriers are being built in Shanghai with the first planned for launch in 2014. A nuclear powered carrier is scheduled to be launched by 2020. Meanwhile, China has bought the unfinished hull of a former Soviet Union carrier, the 58,500-ton Varyag. This it is turning into a training carrier in Dalian that is due to be in service in 2012.
The carrier programe started last year, according to the SOA. “This shows that China has started entering a new historic era of comprehensively building itself into a great naval power.”
That promises to change the security balance in the western Pacific. Japan’s announcement of a new defense strategy recognizes China’s growing naval power in and around its own waters, which it describes as an “issue of concern for the regional and international communities”. Beijing has issued the predictable rebuff that it has no intention of threatening anybody. Regardless, Japan plans to boost its maritime and air surveillance capabilities (against North Korea as well as China), bolster its troops on its southern Islands, and upgrade its submarine fleet, as Beijing is doing with its. Anchors aweigh.