Liaoning aircraft carrier

Liaoning's role in China's blue-water navy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 4:21am

There is great symbolism in the nation's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Its handing over to the People's Liberation Army Navy tells the world that China has arrived as a "big power", able and willing to protect its interests if threatened. There the significance for the vessel ends, though. While China has joined the likes of the United States, Britain, France and Russia, years will pass before it will have full capabilities. Truth be told, the craft is little more than a floating shell, devoid of the aircraft, support ships and well-trained crew that are necessary to make it effective.

But that is not to belittle the achievement. The navy is the nation's weakest military link and the carrier, bought from Ukraine and refurbished, is inspiration for the future. Modernising the military branch's hardware will be an expensive and lengthy process and the Liaoning points the way ahead. There is every need for a blue-water navy and, in the vessel, China's intentions are made plain.

China's becoming a naval power is inevitable. The energy and mineral resources it needs to thrive and the bulk of its trade are carried by ship and they need to be protected. A strong naval presence in the world's sea lanes is the best way to do that effectively. Some governments may fret, seeing the build-up as threatening, but it is a right that all the world's countries have for the sake of their national interests.

Commissioning a carrier at a time of territorial conflicts with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, would seem provocative. It raises questions as to whether China's intentions are really for protection, as it says. But carrier development is a long-term strategic matter, not one for short-term purposes. Diplomacy is the only way to solve disputes.

A single carrier has little meaning in terms of defence or power projection. The nation will need others, and the Liaoning is a solid starting point. To allay concerns, Beijing has to ensure transparency and openness about its goals and intentions.