China's carrier no cause for alarm

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am


China's worst-kept secret, its first aircraft carrier, started trials yesterday, making the plainest of statements about the country's ambitions. Although further proof of prowess and a milestone for the People's Liberation Army, the occasion was low-key, in keeping with its declared role in training and research. Neighbouring countries are nonetheless worried, seeing such a vessel as being a threat. But the as-yet unnamed craft need not be a cause for alarm. It symbolises not maritime hegemony, but the basic right to develop.

Refitted from a former Soviet vessel, the carrier seemingly breezed through its maiden testing, but China has no experience with operating such craft. A decade could pass before it is manned by experienced crew and pilots and accompanied by the support ships necessary for meaningful blue-water operations. Nor does a single carrier have much meaning in terms of defence or power projection, the aims behind putting it to sea. Years more will pass before several others, necessary to meet any strategy and already believed to be under construction, sail.

Despite the global economic turmoil, China's military modernisation has forged ahead, prompting a regional arms race, while the US and other Western nations have been slashing defence budgets. The new planes, ships and submarines have raised tensions in the South and East China seas and diplomatic rows have erupted with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over boat collisions or incursions into disputed waters. Launching a carrier at such a time would not seem in keeping with Beijing's promises of a peaceful rise. Questions are being raised as to whether the vessel means China will change its long-standing stance on its military being only for defence. China relies on the oceans to fuel its economy through trade, energy supplies and raw materials. Aircraft carriers can help defend and protect interests, but also have a role in global peace and humanitarian work. Beijing must be transparent and open about its goals to allay concerns.