Presenting The First Chinese Aircraft Carrier

After reverse engineering virtually every product known to man, the Chinese have now applied the same skill to the only component of their military that was so far missing: an aircraft carrier. Earlier today, Xinhua revealed the first official pictures of what will soon be China's first aircraft carrier, now expected to enter operation by the end of the year. As the NYT reports: "The photos of the carrier, the Varyag, which China bought from the Ukraine in 1998, appeared Wednesday on the Web site of Xinhua, the state news agency. It was the first time that Xinhua had given visual evidence of the carrier project, which is widely seen as a linchpin of China’s military modernization and naval ambitions. The carrier is being rebuilt in the waters of Dalian, a coastal city in eastern China. Xinhua cited a military analysis magazine based in Canada, Kanwa Asian Defense Review, as saying that the ship will be ready to sail this year. The fact that Xinhua used that information in a photo caption appeared to be an official endorsement of that view."

More photos here and the wiki entry on the Kuznetsov-style Varyag can be found here.

One thing about the Chinese: they sure can reverse engineer quick:

Andrei Cheng, the founder of the magazine in Canada said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the photographs published by Xinhua showed the carrier at a much more advanced stage of construction than he had expected. He said his magazine had gotten photos of the carrier taken in February, but that those photos did not show any paint on the ship’s upper structure, while the ones published by Xinhua did.

“The speed is very, very amazing, he said. “It’s surprised me.”

As to whether this is a big strategic deal or just military posturing, here is Stratfor's analysis on the implications of China getting its first aircraft carrier.

China’s state news agency, Xinhua, has published pictures of the Varyag, an aircraft carrier that the Chinese bought from the Ukrainians that they’ve been slowly working to develop and deploy. The pictures are accompanied by a note that suggests that after 70 years of Chinese hopes, this carrier is finally going to float this year.

It’s interesting that Chinese state media is finally publishing pictures of the carrier. This has been about the worst-kept secret in the history of military development; everyone has seen pictures — either satellite pictures or on-the-ground pictures — of the Varyag throughout its refit by the Chinese. That they’re finally putting imagery in the state media suggests that they may actually be nearing the point of putting this to sea.

There’s been a lot of concern raised by China’s neighbors — by the United States — of Chinese maritime intent, of the expansion of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, of a seemingly more assertive China in pushing what it considers to be its own naval territory. The deployment of the Varyag finally into this mix will certainly add to those concerns. The Varyag would technically allow the Chinese to move air assets further away from their shore, give them additional capabilities within the narrow constraints of the South China Sea. There’s been a lot of debate as to whether or not the Chinese included the South China Sea as one of their “core national interests” in some documents last year. It’s unclear whether they did or they didn’t, but certainly the Chinese have been acting in a manner that suggests that they are going to be much more aggressive in pushing their claim to the territory, as well as pushing to work bilaterally with some of the countries along the region, in an effort to keep the United States out of the mix.

Carrier operations are not something that’s easy to do, it’s going to take a very long time for the Chinese to be able to work through the various technicalities of this. It’s also not something they’re going to be able to learn from other people. The Russians haven’t done carrier operations a very long time and United States is certainly not going to be training them. So this is going to be years before the Chinese really have the coordination to be able to move large carrier battle groups anywhere. And that assumes also that China builds more carriers. A single carrier gives you almost no capability. It’s got to be in port, it’s got to be in for refit, it can only go to one location. Until they have about three carriers, they really don’t even have the opportunity to maintain a single carrier on station at any given point in time.

This is really more about politics rather than about military capabilities at this moment. Certainly, the Chinese will use this to learn, to train, to be able to develop new capabilities. But it’s about giving the sense that China has emerged, that China really is no longer just a second-tier country, but economically, politically and militarily, China is one of the big boys now.