During a diplomatic visit in which China boasted of both its military prowess and its apparent lack thereof, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has become the first American official to receive a tour of a Chinese aircraft carrier.
Hagel received more access to Chinese military equipment than any American previously in the historic visit that, according to The New York Times, was rife with both military boasting and deep insecurities on the part of the Chinese government. Hagel toured the Liaoning, the nation’s only aircraft carrier, a vessel that Hagel complimented on the trip while also noting in private that it was “not as big, not as fast” as American carriers.
East Asia military experts told the Times that this was an understatement: The ship was “a surplus ship from the Soviet era that had been used as a hotel after it was decommissioned,” according to Andrew L. Oros, associate professor of political science at Washington College.
While the Liaoning represents a new success for the Chinese military despite its limited abilities, China must still contend with soldiers’ subpar experience. China must also contend with the fear that nations like Japan and the Philippines, both of which boast large navies and have ongoing territorial disputes with China, will spark military actions in the South and East China Seas. The Times points out that “no one in China’s political or military leadership … has significant experience in war, and its troops are not trained in combat.”
Despite the failings of the Chinese military, Chinese officials have increased the level of bombast in their rhetoric during Hagel’s visit. One Chinese official boasted at a press conference alongside Hagel that China could “not be contained,” while Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan warned the United States not to be “permissive” of powers like Japan. Speaking of the Philippines, Chang warned Hagel, “We will make no compromise, no concession, no trading, not even a tiny … violation is allowed,” according to CBS.
Hagel explained before his visit that speaking to China about their military expansion was important to keep dialogue open before tensions with key U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines exacerbated to dangerous levels. “You cannot go around and redefine boundaries, violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation. … So I want to talk to our Chinese friends about this,” Hagel said in Tokyo before heading to Beijing.
Hagel was referencing a number of territorial disputes between the two countries. In particular, China had reignited debate with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea belonging to Japan, over which China issued an “Air Defense Identification Zone” requiring Japanese aircraft to identify itself to the Chinese government.