China’s aircraft carrier puts naval ambitions on show in Dalian port

By Sibastien Blanc ,AFP

DALIAN, China — At a northern quayside China’s first aircraft carrier dwarfs nearby vessels, its take-off ramp rising higher than the top deck of the cruise ship at the next berth, symbolizing the country’s naval ambitions. Dalian, where the Liaoning was refitted and undergoes regular maintenance, looks out over the Bohai strait, gateway to the Yellow Sea, and beyond it, Japan and the Pacific Ocean. Beijing proclaims that China’s rise is entirely peaceful and it has no interest in hegemony, but analysts say its goal is to surpass the naval capability of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and ultimately rival the U.S. Navy, masters of the Pacific. That will require a number of aircraft carrier battle groups, developed over decades and costing billions of dollars. The 300-meter (1,000-foot) Liaoning — a Soviet-era vessel Beijing bought from Ukraine — was commissioned in September 2012, and officers have acknowledged that it is not yet ready for combat, with naval fighter pilots taking years to train. But it is only the first Chinese vessel of its type. Analysts say future carriers will be entirely Chinese-made and ultimately nuclear-powered, vastly extending their range. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is already the world’s largest standing military, and when Chinese President Xi Jinping went on board the Liaoning last year he spoke of building “a powerful people’s navy.” Xi has made a point of visiting several military bases since taking office and has said that “being able to fight and win battles is the essence of strengthening the military.”

Naval Presence Beijing recognizes the “symbolic significance of carrier power in generating global standing,” said James Hardy and Lee Willett of the British military publisher Jane’s. In the medium to long term, they said, China will need “an expanding presence around the world” to secure its interests in resources, markets and shipping routes. “A widespread naval presence thus will be required.” Earlier this year reports in state-run media quoted Wang Min, the Communist Party chief of Liaoning province, as saying a second vessel was already under construction in Dalian and two more were in the pipeline. The PLA clouds its activities in secrecy, and the military zones at the tip of the Lushunkou peninsula in the city — known as Port Arthur during its time as a Russian, then Japanese colony — are forbidden to outsiders. Rick Fisher, senior analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said two rival shipyards produced modules for the next carrier last year, one a “slice” of hull and the other a bow.