China's first aircraft carrier began sea trials this week, a watershed moment in the country's rapid military growth. The still-unnamed ship is a repurposed Soviet-era aircraft carrier that China purchased from the Ukraine in 1998. Though some experts are concerned that China's long-term strategy is to challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia and elsewhere, China has repeatedly demurred, saying the ship will serve primarily for training purposes. International defense experts, however, aren't convinced. Here's what you should know:
Do many other nations have aircraft carriers?
Yes, including some that aren't recognized as military powers. "India, Thailand, Brazil, and Italy all have aircraft carriers, too", says David Millar at The Huffington Post. "Yet no one fears Rome or Bangkok taking over the world anytime soon." Indeed, "there should be no excessive worries or paranoid feelings on China's pursuit of an aircraft carrier, as it will not pose a threat to other countries," says China's state-run Xinhua news agency.
Does China need an aircraft carrier?
Not everyone thinks so. "We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment," says U.S. State Department official Victoria Nuland, as quoted by ABC News. "We are prepared to be extremely transparent with regard to U.S. military positions and equipment, and we'd like to have a reciprocal relationship with China. Transparency in itself is a confidence-builder between nations."
Is China being secretive?
It seems that way. When a Hong Kong-based travel company (a rather mysterious outfit that commentators believe was acting on behalf of the government) bought the aging and gutted aircraft carrier for a mere $20 million in 1998, it promised to turn it into a floating casino in Macao. Eyebrows were raised, however, after the ship was towed not to Macao but to Dalian — home of the Dalian Naval Academy and a center of Chinese naval manufacturing. The cloak of secrecy, and the frequent denials from Chinese officials, suggest they have an agenda at odds with Beijing's professed diplomatic intentions.
Is this ship a real threat?
The aircraft carrier, which isn't combat-ready at this point, is more of a symbolic threat than a real one. "China is a very long way from creating an operational carrier battle group," says Peter Foster in Britain's Telegraph. Defense analysts estimate it will be decades before China can compete with even one of America’s 11 Nimitz-class carriers. China's new aircraft carrier is meaningful because of the growing Chinese military ambitions that it represents.
What are China's long-term military goals?
They're not saying, but China is embroiled in a number of territorial disputes with its Asian neighbors, including Japan. A 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard boats near the disputed Senkaku Islands caused a major diplomatic showdown. There have also been several "maritime incidents between Chinese and Vietnamese survey boats," says Britain's Guardian. Chinese engineers have helped to construct shipping facilities at ports in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan — suggesting that China is keen to become the dominant military player throughout Asia.