The socialist People’s Republic of China is expanding its influence by refurbishing the Varyag, a Soviet era aircraft carrier, renaming it the Shi Lang. The carrier is expected to start sea trials later this year. An aircraft carrier is a strategy to project power far from the homeland. The mere presence of an aircraft carrier has far-reaching effects in the realpolitik between nations. To defend Taiwan, the United States sent aircraft carriers between the island nation and Communist China to warn against aggression. When finished, the Shi Lang is expected to be a formidable presence, especially when combined with other combatants into an anticipated Carrier Battle Group.
A report by Britain-based Jane’s Defence Weekly stated that the carrier would come equipped with phased-array radars and surface-to-air missiles, making it a more independent platform than its U.S. equivalent, which is dependent on Aegis-type guided-missile cruisers for protection. The 302-m long and 70.5-m wide carrier will have a cruising speed of between 29 and 31 knots. The carrier’s loaded displacement (weight) of 67,000 tons will enable it to host as many as 50 aircraft.
The Chinese Navy has a roughly 75 surface combatants, 60 submarines, more than 50 medium and large amphibious ships, 70 or more missile boats and several hundred patrol craft. The surface combatant contingent primarily consists of Destroyers and Frigates. Most are the Chinese produced Luda or Luhai class with four Russian Sovremmony class destroyers. The frigates, which are smaller but capable ships, are the Jiangwhei and the Jianghu class. These ships are not as advanced as the American Aegis class cruisers but they are stepping stones to more far reaching naval ambitions. The Chinese navy includes a considerable number of amphibious ships. Invasion of Taiwan anyone? Their submarine force is basically composed of older diesel-electric submarines. These non-nuclear submarines are easier to operate and maintain, but cannot venture far from their supply bases. The best analogy is Soviet weaponry during and after World War II. Their T-34 tanks, SKS rifles and other equipment wasn’t sophisticated like the German Tiger II tanks or Gewehr 43 Machine Guns – but the stuff almost always worked under harsh conditions. And when diesel-electric boats go silent, they go silent.
In 2006, a Chinese submarine stalked an American Carrier. The Chinese Song-class diesel-powered attack submarine trailed the Kitty Hawk battle group which has cruisers, submarines and helicopter anti-submarine detection capability. Undetected, the Song class surfaced within five miles of the carrier – well within the firing range of their Russian wake-homing torpedoes and their anti-ship cruise missiles. The incident proved a keen embarrassment for Admiral Fallon who heads U.S. Forces in the Pacific and has aggressively engaged the Chinese military with exchanges and even invitations to sensitive U.S. military bases. The Chinese have not reciprocated with similar invitations to their military bases, perhaps proving that an American open hand offered in friendship merely shows its Communist adversaries that it holds no weapon. The Song class captain would not have shadowed and embarrassed the U.S. Carrier Battle Group without permission from China’s masters. They did so to prove American vulnerabilities – and perhaps the mettle of their own submarine fleet against the vaunted U.S. Navy. Moments like this allow the PLAN’s leaders to request bigger budgets and prestige within the Communist hierarchy. Now it is they who are confronting the Americans in ‘their’ Pacific ocean.
“With our naval strategy changing now, we are going from coastal defense to far sea defense,” Rear Adm. Zhang Huachen, deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, said in an interview with Xinhua, the state news agency. According to experts, the Chinese navy receives more than one-third of the country’s overall military budget, reflecting the priority Beijing places on maintaining open sea lanes for resources and manufacturing as a vital element of national security.
The Chinese have been visiting ports far and wide, including the Gulf of Aden, the Phillipines and even battling Somali pirates on patrol. They are upgrading the carrier for ‘research and training’ purposes according to an article in the Washington Times. The Chinese have been struggling to create a navy beyond their coastal force over the last few decades. Their Han class nuclear submarines had severe rafting isolation problems, causing a distinct noise signature. They reportedly didn’t venture too far from the mainland. Still, China held Sino-Russian military exercise, including live fire exercises, in 2005. These exercises combined a number of scenarios including a simulated blockade and missile launches from submerged Chinese submarines. Beijing’s socialist masters have put more resources and funding into the navy services, including marines and coastal defenses, over the last two decades. Why?
In researching China for my novel, “Stealing Thunder”, I discovered the demographics intertwined with economics driving the Chinese goal. With a burgeoning population and more than 100 million unemployed, the Communist Party must keep the economy pumping. If not, then social unrest results. For the last four or five years, this social unrest has been percolating and popping across China. The corrupt Communist party officials have routinely ignored the people and the people’s democracy. The PRC has routinely used its security forces to slam down hard on political and economic grievances. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, “In the latest disturbance, armed police were struggling to restore order in a manufacturing town in southern China Monday after deploying tear gas and armored vehicles against hundreds of migrant workers who overturned police cars, smashed windows and torched government buildings there the night before.” Riots and bombings, more common in the rural area, have moved into the cities. These acts don’t directly threaten the Socialist Dictatorship, but they do alarm the Communist hierarchy which uses ‘social management’ like internet censorship and police presence to neutralize any threats. And these are not just a few incidents. When China does something, the word ‘big’ almost always enters the picture. “Social unrest has been rising steadily in recent years: In 2007, China had more than 80,000 “mass incidents,” [emphasis mine] up from above 60,000 in 2006, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, although many involved no more than a few dozen people protesting against local officials. No authoritative estimates have been released since then, though analysts citing leaked official figures put such incidents at 127,000 in 2008.”[emphasis mine]
To keep their economy going, China needs resources and oil. This strategy is in line with their overall quest to extend Chinese PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) influence well beyond their traditional coastal defense imperative. Oil lies in the disputed islands of the South China Sea and vast natural gas reserves lie under the Senkaku Islands controlled by Japan but disputed by Chinese nationalists encouraged by Beijing. Influence. Energy. Territory. The only direction for them to go is outward. And the next logical step is the 4.5 sovereign acres of national territory that can move anywhere. An Aircraft Carrier.