China has this week unveiled its first naval aircraft carrier. According to the Xinhua agency the carrier left the Port of Dalian to begin sea trials. While it does not appear that the carrier will be ready for active service for a number of years, the trials have begun during a period in which China is embroiled in a number of maritime territorial disputes, and in which Chinese power at sea is an important question for a variety of players.
During the last year China has become involved in spats over allocations of maritime space with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in the East and South China Seas. The rivalry with Taiwan has been an enduring feature of China’s international relations, and Taiwan has responded to the launch by unveiling its own new military hardware, a missile purportedly designed to attack aircraft carriers specifically.
This rivalry has traditionally been underscored by the presence of the US in the region, and this also affects relations with Vietnam. In June 2011 its navy carried out live-firing exercises off its coast, its dispute with China (over an area of the South China Sea and a number of islands) appearing to grow worse.
The Philippines, too, has criticised China. It has argued that China has violated its maritime sovereignty, and has been keen to stress the links that it shares with the US in order to preserve navigational rights under international law. Commercial navigation (through the Malacca Strait), fishing and the search for natural resources are all at issue in the dispute over the South China Sea. It is in the interests of the Philippines to protect its interests by stressing the international dimensions of the dispute, and the disputants.
In fact, in the South Chinas Sea, China is involved with several disputes—with Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan as well as the Philippines—and so perhaps this explains the Chinese preference to deal with the disputes bilaterally. China seeks to address disputes with its neighbours individually, asserting its rising power by isolating each dispute within the overall picture of its maritime policy. In so doing China seeks to exclude regional actors, principally Asean, and the hegemonic power of the US.
Another rising economic power is also entering the picture, making it one that is increasingly crowded. India has begun to project its military-strategic power and thereby contest China’s regional influence. Elsewhere, the recent Japanese defence budget warned of increasing Chinese influence in the maritime spaces off its coast; consistent with recent rhetoric, the Chinese authorities’ response was to criticise Japan for exaggerating in its claims. The maritime spaces involved are becoming increasingly complex and contested; how far the rhetoric that privileges the peaceful resolution of regional maritime disputes is meaningful is a question open to debate.
Dr Ian Storey of the Institute of South East Asian Studies (Singapore) argues that tensions have risen steeply between China and Vietnam to a level reminiscent of that of the late 1980s. (In 1988, for example, around 70 Vietnamese were killed in a single clash.) With tensions increasing after the relative calm of the early 2000s, perhaps the potential for a renewed clash is high, and it is not only Sino-Vietnamese relations that appear to demonstrate this hallmark.
Nonetheless the Chinese rhetoric downplays its ambitions consistently. The government has claimed that its new vessel will be tasked, primarily, with research and training. Even if its life in active service is some way off, however, the moment for the launch is significant.
The aircraft carrier does not represent a dramatic increase in Chinese power, but its launch—and the badly kept secret that the Chinese were refitting a former Soviet hulk in Dalian—represents a particular performance of Chinese ambitions.
In a week in which the Chinese government took the unprecedented step of criticising the position of the US with respect to the debt crisis being played out there, the launch of the carrier demonstrates an aspect, in another area, through which Chinese power is performed in order to undermine that of the US. The carrier’s launch provides China’s neighbours—particularly Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—with an indication that US fleets will no longer be able to protect their interests. There will be competition to the US naval presence in the future; perhaps the message is going out that it is better for these powers to consolidate bilateral contact with China when it comes to their territorial disputes, rather than it is to rely on the protection of these interests by the US fleet given that its power will likely diminish in the coming years.
How this will affect the relations between the US and its allies in the region is not yet clear. Maybe states such as Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam will adjust their defence spending and look to regional cooperation. But as the regional maritime picture becomes increasingly complex through the emergence of new powers it seems that China is seeking to assert both its rising power, and the sense of grievance that informs the imperative to alter its maritime territorial dispositions.