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The United States is asking questions and isn’t happy with what it’s hearing. Late last night, a spokeswoman for the US State Department sought to clear the air about China’s intentions surrounding the Ukranian aircraft carrier they purchased, the Varyag:
We welcome any explanation from China about why it needs this kind of equipment. This is part of our larger concern that China is not as transparent as other countries. It is not as transparent as the US about its military acquisitions or its military budget.”
The issue of transparency is most likely due to the fact that despite world-wide news coverage of the Varyag’s first sea trials, the Chinese government remained silent, barred foreign and domestic reporters from photographing or taping, and had no fanfare whatsoever surrounding the launch of China’s most important piece of military equipment to date.
In the past, China has been forthcoming about its intended use for the Varyag. The official party line remains that the vessel will be primarily used for research and training.
However, as the realization of “holy crap, we have a carrier” sinks in among China’s higher-ups, no doubt some alternate uses will be spilling out, causing further anxiety among China watchers. The first of these alternate uses bubbled up yesterday in an opinion piece published in the state-run military newspaper, PLA Daily. In the commentary, a top level reporter made some bold assertions that would most likely not be published if they did not receive some support from Chinese leadership.
Why did we build it if we don’t have the courage and willingness to use the aircraft carrier to handle territorial disputes? It is reasonable to use the aircraft carrier or other warships to handle disputes if there is any need. The reason why we built a carrier is to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests more efficiently. We will be more confident and have more determination to defend our territorial integrity after we have carriers.
No country has specifically responded to this assertion as of yet, but countries that currently have maritime territorial disputes with China such as the Philippines and Vietnam have naturally been concerned about the carrier since it was announced. Taiwan similarly had a strong reaction to the Varyag by unveiling a “carrier killer” missile set against a backdrop of a burning Varyag.
Around the world there are currently 22 aircraft carriers operated by nine countries. Half of those carriers belong to the United States, Italy owns two carriers, and Spain, Britain, Brazil, France, Russia, India and Thailand own one a piece.
China’s entrance into the carrier club seems lessened by the fact that India and Thailand already own carriers. However, India’s carrier is currently the oldest in operation (60 years of service) and Thailand’s carrier is so small it is often considered the Thai Royal Family’s Yacht.
Despite all of this foreboding, the fact still remains that China is the only nation on the UN Security Council that doesn’t have a carrier. The US Navy’s supercarrier, the USS George Washington is docked long-term in Japan. China has been a responsible nuclear power for 55 years and is signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (India is not). China’s military expenditures as a percentage of its GPD is 2.2% compared to the United States’ 4.7%.
No matter how slowly China develops its military, or exerts influence over South-East Asia, the world the United States will complain and fearmonger. It’s 2011, and China is still years away from being able to get any use out of the Varyag. If anything, the United States should be encouraging China to hurry up and modernize their navy, because just as Chinese warships were trusted to secure shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia, the United States can’t be everywhere at once.
If the world doesn’t expect China to actually use the Varyag, then what do they expect? Another hotel?