By Christian Le Mière, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
The announcement on June 8 that China is refurbishing the Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag is the country’s first official statement on the issue. From the position of outright denial in 1998, when the Varyag was bought in Ukraine through a front company, the PLA has slowly moved towards official confirmation following the first official mention in the state-run press this April.
The refurbishment of the Varyag (its Chinese name has not yet been confirmed) has been a poorly kept secret for several years. It has been painted military grey, gone into and left dry dock in Dalian and had close-in weapon systems installed.
The media formula is similar to that employed for the launch of the J-20 stealth fighter earlier this year, when photographs were leaked to unofficial media sources in late December before a story ran in the state-run press the following week. The J-20 was then publicly ‘unveiled’ on 11 January, coinciding with the visit of US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates to China.
However, the Varyag’s forthcoming sea trials do not indicate China’s ability to field a carrier task group. The country currently lacks the anti-submarine warfare expertise to deploy a carrier task group to contested waters, an in-service carrier-borne aircraft (the J-15 is still in prototype), enough trained pilots or the ability to sustain a carrier at sea.
Bringing all these elements together to form a deployable and effective task group will likely take years.
It may be for these reasons that Lt Gen Qi Jianguo, Chief of General Staff Gen Chen Bingde’s assistant, qualified his superior’s statements with the observation that the carrier would not sail to other countries’ territorial waters.
This carefully worded statement was likely designed to mitigate regional concern about China’s relentless military modernisation, although it doesn’t count out deployment to Southeast Asia in any conflict, given that China claims much of the South China Sea as its own territory.
However the Varyag is used, China’s aircraft carrier ambitions, which will almost certainly extend just one former Soviet boat, are increasingly clear.