China’s first aircraft carrier departed from the country’s northeastern port of Dalian for sea trials on Aug. 10. The launch was cheered not only at the dockside but around China.
The Chinese have not forgotten invasions of their country in the 19th and 20th centuries by the great powers and appear to see this aircraft carrier as a symbol of their national strength.
However, the new vessel is an unsettling development for China’s neighbors. Some countries, including Vietnam, which have territorial disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea, are understandably alarmed.
In fact, the ship in question is an old tub that had its keel laid in the 1980s in the Soviet Union. It was dumped after the Soviet system collapsed.
The Chinese have reportedly refitted it completely, but it has no aircraft on board yet. The purpose of the sea trial is just to check the vessel’s engine and radar performance and other functions.
Mao Tse-tung once described the U.S. nuclear bomb as a “paper tiger.” As things stand now, we can probably borrow the former Chinese leader’s words with reference to the Chinese aircraft carrier. It doesn’t even have a name yet.
The real question is how China intends to develop its naval capability in the future.
China, buoyed by its rapid economic rise, has begun to assert its national interests around the globe and has already done a phenomenal job of beefing up its navy to secure sea lanes and resources.
Although no official announcement has been made, China is understood to be building its first completely domestically produced aircraft carrier in Shanghai. The project will rely on data from the Soviet-built flattop’s sea trial. The country is also in the process of developing anti-ship ballistic missiles that could target U.S. aircraft carriers.
Southeast Asian nations that are concerned about China’s new assertiveness are stepping up their joint military exercises with the United States and increasing defense spending. They are hurrying to acquire submarines and battleships offering more advanced capabilities. India, which already has aircraft carriers, is now building a new flattop and is in the process of upgrading its submarine fleet.
In the meantime, the economic ties between these nations and China are growing stronger.
Asian economies including China’s are developing rapidly, but income gaps are widening. We find it unfortunate that these countries are pouring their financial resources into military expansion when that money should be spent on social security and infrastructure development.
We believe each country should focus on fostering mutual trust through patient diplomacy. We would like to re-emphasize the gravity of China’s responsibilities as a major power.
That said, Japan is at odds with China in the East China Sea. The situation in the South China Sea is not something we can dismiss as none of our business.
Japan’s defense policy is based on its alliance with the United States, and, in the context of that alliance, it is collaborating with other Asian countries to deal with China. While maintaining this basic stance, Japan also needs to make a greater effort than ever to improve direct relations with China.