TAIPEI – A proud China is set to launch its first aircraft carrier. For Taiwan, the carrier’s most frightening aspect could be its name.
For years, military enthusiasts flying over the seaport city of Dalian in northeast China knew well when to press their noses against the cabin windows. On the approach to Dalian’s Zhoushuizi airport, the construction of China’s first aircraft carrier
could be spotted, with workers busy along the length of the 302-meter long, 70.5-meter wide ship.
They installed engines and other heavy equipment, completed the radar mast, installed the shipborne multi-function Active Phased Array Radar (APAR) and Sea Eagle radar as sensors, hauled up Type 730 close-in weapon system (CIWS) seven-barreled 30mm machine guns to destroy incoming anti-ship missiles and enemy aircraft at short range, and tinkered with the fully automatic fire-and-forget Flying Leopard 3000 Naval (FL-3000N) air defense missile system.
Once the steely giant blew out steam and exhaust, and workers begun painting its hull the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLA Navy’s) standard light gray-blue, it became clear that the 67,000 tonne-carrier was never meant to become a Macau casino float as the Chinese had initially claimed.
The story of how the Varyag – once destined to become a Soviet navy multi-role aircraft carrier – ended up in Chinese hands may inspire novelists or screenplay writers for decades. Her keel was laid down in 1985 in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, only to have construction stopped – while the ship was structurally complete but without electronics – in 1992 following the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union.
The carrier was first laid up unmaintained, then stripped, and by 1998 she had lost her engines, a rudder, as well as her operating systems. Finally, the Varyag was put up for auction by Ukraine.
Having had gross domestic product (GDP) fall 60% from 1991 to 1999 and suffering five-digit inflation rates in a deep economic slowdown, the Ukrainians warmly welcomed an unheard-of Hong Kong company which purchased the vessel for US$20 million. The colossus embarked on a 28,200-kilometer journey with the Hong Kong firm saying it wanted the vessel to become a casino in the southern Chinese gambling city of Macau. The Varyag was towed out of the Black Sea, through the Bosporus strait, the Straits of Gibraltar, around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Straits of Malacca.
But Macau wasn’t the final destination. In 2005, the Varyag ended up at a dry dock at Dalian, home to the PLA Dalian Naval Academy. There, China’s first batch of carrier aviators began training in 2008, undergoing a four-year course of instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating from a carrier. It took a few years until Chinese state-run media broke the news that the carrier was being built. In early April, it was declared that China’s first aircraft carrier could take to the sea as early as July 1.
However, according to unconfirmed reports in Western and Taiwanese media, the Varyag has been renamed. Now, the she is allegedly to be called the Shi Lang, pennant number 83, a name that is not popular in Taiwan.
Shi Lang (1621-1696), the historical figure after whom China’s first aircraft carrier is allegedly to be named, has also been providing the Chinese with a useful historical narrative of late. The Ming general, reputedly a genius in naval warfare, defected to the Manchu-Qing Dynasty, who by then had conquered all China except Taiwan.
Under the Qing flag, Shi Lang in 1683 led an amphibious operation with 300 warships and 20,000 troops against Taiwan, eventually forcing Qing rule on the island, which until then had been governed by a ruler loyal to the Ming. According to some accounts, certainly not the official Chinese ones, Shi Lang seized much of southern Taiwan for his own profit, extorted the islanders and instituted policies that deliberately aimed to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the Qing empire.
No wonder Shi Lang isn’t held in particular high regard by Taiwanese locals. And the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long refrained from painting him as “the” national hero who deserves to be worshipped for having unified the divided motherland. After all, the general was a defector.
For China, ”the” national hero, whose role it is to morally instruct and install patriotism into Chinese youth, is the legendary Zheng He (1371-1435), also known in English as Cheng Ho, who commanded the Ming Dynasty’s “treasure fleet”, visiting Arabia, Brunei, East Africa, India, Malay Archipelago and Thailand. By claiming the Ming eunuch-commander peacefully traded and presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain and silk along the way, Beijing makes plausible that China will be a righteous and benevolent superpower.
The recent rehabilitation of Shi Lang, the conqueror of Taiwan, was not an idea of the Chinese government, but the country’s scholarship and movie industry. Shi Lang has become the subject of a growing number of popular TV novellas, the long-dead general increasingly making en vogue the perception that the use of force to reach China’s sacred national goal of cross-strait unification is not only just but also ripe with precedence.
This sets the bar higher for China’s present-day leaders, already under pressure to resolve the Taiwan issue in this or the next decade at the latest.
How the carrier will actually affect Taiwan’s military is another matter. Observers predict that she will call Sanya Naval Base on China’s southern Hainan Island her mother port. If that proves true, the carrier will be assigned to the PLA Navy’s South China Sea Fleet, likely sailing back and forth from the Persian Gulf to help secure Beijing’s crude oil shipping line.
Cited as other possible missions are the enhancement of China’s military deployment in the South China Sea amid sovereignty disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, and also functioning as a soft power instrument, taking part in large-scale humanitarian relief missions.
Although experts agree that the carrier’s prime objective wouldn’t be a contingency involving Taiwan, there are voices within the Taiwan navy that caution otherwise. One is Wang Jhy-perng, an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies and reserve captain of the Taiwan navy.
“In the past, Taiwan had the Taiwan Strait and its Central Mountain Range as a natural protection. In the future, when China by means of its anti-access/area-denial weapons can keep US forces at bay, preventing them from coming quickly to Taiwan’s help, the Chinese can also attack from behind with help of their aircraft carriers.”
The Central Mountain Range Wang refers to runs from the north of the island to the south, reaching well above 3,000 meters. Because the Chinese weapon the Taiwanese fear most – the DF-15 short-range tactical missile – can only hit targets on the west side of the mountain range, Taiwan’s military bases located at the east coast are assessed as significantly easier to defend.
Also China’s allegedly newly developed ballistic missile, the DF-16, could, according to Wang, possibly hit hills surrounding east coast bases rather than the targeted military installations due to an unfavorable re-entry angle.
Wang further points to a notion recently expressed by Lan Ning-li, a retired vice admiral of the Taiwan navy. According to Lan, Taiwan’s naval strategy has always been to keep China’s East China Sea fleet from joining its South China Sea fleet in the Taiwan Strait for a pincers movement on Taiwan.
But even if Taiwanese naval vessels can block enemy entry from the north and south sides of the Taiwan Strait, Lan, echoing Wang’s assessment, holds that the Varyag will allow China to expand naval activities to the east of Taiwan in the Pacific.
The retired admiral also expounded the effect the carrier will have on sovereignty disputes over resource-rich waters in the South China Sea.
“If something develops there, with the carrier, China can quickly react,” he commented to Taiwanese media.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and a defense expert frequently called on to testify before US Congress, told Asia Times Online that one aircraft carrier won’t have much impact on Taiwan.
“Certainly, China has no shortage of land-based airpower that can reach Taiwan, and a conflict in the South China Sea is far more likely than conflict with Taiwan,” he argues.
“China’s new amphibious assault ship and hospital ship are of far more concern than an aircraft carrier. And again, the entire South China Sea is within range of Chinese land-based aviation anyway.”
Pike says that a single aircraft carrier alone is not a game-changer. “Many other countries, such as Thailand or Brazil, have one aircraft carrier, and it seems to make no difference,” he says.
The amphibious assault ship Pike refers to can carry marine or army troops together with their armored transport vehicles, artillery and a small number of transport or attack helicopters. As a feature making it a perfectly appropriate weapon system for deploying leading units needed for an invasion of Taiwan, hovercraft can be launched, bypassing initial coastal defenses.
Oliver Brauner of the China and Global Security Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, agrees that the inauguration of the Chinese aircraft carrier won’t change the military balance in the Taiwan Strait.
“The PLA’s installations on the Chinese mainland are sufficient for a Taiwan conflict and much better to defend than a single aircraft carrier,” he says, further stating that the same goes for the South China Sea.
“Hainan is a sort of ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, strategically much more valuable than a carrier.”
According to Brauner, next to functioning as a training platform, the role of China’s first carrier will be as a symbol of the country’s military strength and as a soft-power instrument.
“While this could be perceived as a threat by China’s smaller neighboring countries and the US, it could on the other hand bring Beijing the respect of countries that are critical or even hostile to US and Western hegemony.”
As for the carrier’s new name, to Wang Jhy-perng, the choice Shi Lang is about the least plausible at all. In his eyes, if China used that name, it will without doubt be perceived as very negative both in Taiwan and internationally.
“I think more likely they will name her Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping,” he says