For Asia Times www.atimes.com
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI – The first aircraft carrier for China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) is expected to enter service before October 1, the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But what’s still missing is a name for the steely monster that was originally bought as scrap from Ukraine and has since been refurbished in a Chinese shipyard in northeastern Dalian city.
In the run-up to the once-in-a-decade transition of power in Beijing this autumn, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is being domestically criticized as weak in the country’s sovereignty disputes with its neighbors, particularly with arch-rival Japan, and a notion is emerging that the carrier’s nomenclature could kill two birds with one stone.
According to this school of thought, favored by some nationalist Chinese military brass, the original Russian name “Varyag” should be replaced with “Diaoyu Dao” (Fishing Islands), which is how the Chinese call the Senkakus (the Japanese term), a group of islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan and claimed by China and Taiwan. They were the scene of recent high-profile standoffs between pro-China activists and the Japanese coast guard.
While unlikely to cause much more than a shrug in Tokyo, Beijing could might see the move as a chance not only to appease hawks at home but also to unify the greater “Chinese nation”.
A Confucian mantra “ming bu zheng ze yan bushun; yan bu shun ze shi bu da” roughly translates as “If something is not named properly, then it can hardly be justified in argument. If something is not properly justified, then it can hardly achieve its aim.” According to the ancient Chinese sage, names of things must be chosen with utmost care because without the proper names, societies crumble and sacred national undertakings stand no chance of being completed.
Last year, it seemed as if Beijing was just about to trample on this piece of wisdom. At the time, rumors persisted that Beijing intended to rename the Varyag after the Ming general Shi Lang, who defected to the Qing after they had conquered all of China but Taiwan. Under the Qing flag, Shi Lang in 1683 led an amphibious operation with 300 warships and 20,000 troops against Taiwan, eventually enforcing Qing rule upon the island.
There, at least according to some Taiwanese accounts, he proceeded to extort enormous monetary resources for his own profit. Needless to say, if the PLA Navy names its largest warship after such a polarizing figure, it would deal a blow to the ongoing process of cross-strait conciliation and further split the greater “Chinese nation” more than it already is. In other words, the PLA Navy would make Confucius turn in his grave.
“I am sure that people in Taiwan would be very unhappy if it is named ‘Shi Lang’,” Wu Yu-shan, director of the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most prestigious research institution, told Asia Times Online. “Because that name suggests the carrier has the mission of ‘liberating’ Taiwan.”
The man who brought up the “Diaoyu Dao” idea, PLA Major-General Luo Yuan, is something of a character. Luo arguably is the Chinese military’s most active media commentator; he criticizes the civilian leadership’s decisions publicly and at times very bluntly.
He has wanted to see much more troops, naval patrols and fire power in disputed waters and has been pushing the administration of President Hu Jintao to declare the entire South China Sea China’s third Special Administrative Region (SRA) after Hong Kong and Macao. What all of his nationalist outbursts have in common is that they gain huge applause in Chinese Internet forums. Hundreds of thousands of netizens frequently give their two cents in his support, putting significant pressure on Beijing to heed his words.
Given the recent high-profile trip by anti-Japan activists from Hong Kong and Macau to the Diaoyu (Senkakus) Islands – they landed briefly on the barren rocks, waving flags of the PRC and Taiwan – and also because the Hong Kong group was partly made up of pro-democracy activists, who normally loathe the CCP, Beijing could well find that an aircraft carrier named “Diaoyu Dao” would serve its quest for national unity. ‘
The choice appears even more rewarding because the mainland Chinese public has since come to see the activists as nothing but national heroes. (To the average Hongkonger, however, they remain a rather dubious bunch.)
Professor Wu doesn’t rule out that a move to name China’s first aircraft carrier after the disputed islands would draw some applause in Taiwan. But it wouldn’t be of the loud kind, as “the society is divided, between those who are nationalistic and those who see a mainland plot in the appearance of the [Taiwanese] Republic of China flag carried by the Hong Kong protestors when they landed on the islet.”
Beijing has still another intriguing option, Wu pointed out. “If the People’s Republic of China uses Taiwan’s term ‘Diaoyu Tai‘, as opposed to the mainland term ‘Diaoyu Dao‘, then there might be a higher degree of acceptance.”
Whether the island or general’s name are chosen – or “Mao Zedong” or “Deng Xiaoping” as some media have been speculating – the naming by the PLA Navy of the ship after a place or a person would represent a turning point in communist traditions.
Ever since the Cultural Revolution, by which Mao Zedong sought to get rid once and for all of the old China he loathed, the naming of ships and boats has been a process so murky that not even the most renowned observers on Chinese military affairs can identify an actual system.
In what cautiously could be described as a rule of thumb, ships’ classes are named after Chinese provinces, regions and municipalities, while the actual ship goes only by a number painted on its hull. An exception is the Zheng He training vessel.
If the new aircraft carrier indeed receives a real name instead of just a number painted on its hull, then it may be a start to resume Confucius’ attitude regarding names at the expense of Mao’s revolutionary stance. Since last year, insignia on Chinese military uniforms and equipment have been quietly and incrementally changed from “PLA”, “PLA Navy” and “PLA Air Force” to “China Army”, “China Navy” and “China Air Force”, and around the same time, Chinese officials began talking of the “Chinese nation”, as opposed to “China” or the “People’s Republic of China”, when addressing Taiwanese audiences.
The goal is obviously to get the Taiwanese – and to a lesser extent the Hongkongers – into the boat. From Beijing’s perspective, it is 15 years since Hong Kong was handed over to China, yet hearts in the former British territory appear reluctant to transfer their loyalties so swiftly – not a single citizen of Hong Kong has signed up with the PLA.
And how would the Japanese like seeing the Varyag being renamed the “Diaoyu Dao”?
According to Chen Ching-Chang, a professor at Japan’s Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, the initial reaction should be similar to the Taiwanese when rumors had it that the colossus would become the “Shi Lang”.
“It is largely psychological – it is not necessary to deploy an aircraft carrier so as to attack Taiwan’s military facilities and critical infrastructure from the east side; submarine-launched cruise missiles can already do a fairly good job,” he said.
“Similarly, China’s maiden aircraft carrier, named ‘Diaoyu Dao’ or not, could not do much in an invasion of the Senkaku islands. With or without US assistance, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is still qualitatively more superior than the PLA Navy.”
But the image of the Varyag docked in a foggy port awaiting sea trials as shown in Japan’s TV news undoubtedly has an impact on the Japanese psyche, Chen said. According to him, it would not be surprising if Japanese leaders resorted to carefully crafted names in order to fire back at China.
“Tokyo Governor [Shintaro] Ishihara recently suggested that if Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo has a pair of new born giant pandas, their names could be ‘Sensen’ and ‘Kakukaku’; taken together that makes up ‘Senkaku’.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)