Yesterday, a day before the start of 2016, China confirmed that it is building a second aircraft carrier. The carrier, in an advanced stage of assembly, is under construction at Dalian – a city in the Liaoning Province, which lent the name to China’s first aircraft carrier. This news sends warning signals not just in the region around China but across the Pacific, into United States. According to Chinese Defence Minister Yang Yujun the carrier was a necessity because China has “a long coast line and a vast maritime area under our jurisdiction”.
“To safeguard our maritime sovereignty, interests and rights is the sacred mission of the Chinese armed forces.”
The statement highlights two critical points: one, “vast maritime area” and, two, “sacred mission”.
By “vast maritime area” the Defence Minister was pointing at Beijing’s claim over the entire South China Sea region – an area of 3.5 million square kilometers possibly rich in oil and gas deposits. China lays claim to practically the entire South China Sea (see map). Beijing says that all islands and everything that falls inside its self-created ‘nine-dash line’ has been part of China’s since medieval times – a claim disputed by every other country via their own historical records.
This claim is at the heart of a political strife between the nations sharing a coast of the South China Sea. But far north of the South China Sea, a similar dispute continues between China and Japan over control of what Japan calls Senkaku Islands.
The “sacred mission” that the Chinese Defence Minister spoke of is to actually take control of the “vast maritime area” and, thereby, move into a position of influence over Taiwan.
In fact it was Taiwan’s intelligence network that first stated in September 2015
that China is secretly building not one but two aircraft carriers. So yesterday was just an official confirmation for one of those. Military analyst Ni Lexiong told South China Morning Post
that Beijing is increasingly feeling the pressure of Washington’s arms sales to Taipei as well as military ship and plane patrols over the Spratly Islands. The Spratly Islands are another major point of conflict escalation. In this regard China has already taken a giant leap by moving very fast and building critical military installations near the islands.
China built an artificial island complete with an air strip by destroying a coral reef in just one year.
China already has one aircraft carrier named Liaoning, which it has been using to train naval pilots and better understand the machinations of maintaining a carrier battle group.
Though the Liaoning is not believed to be fully ready for combat, China’s rapid pace of indigenous defence production, including fighter aircraft manufacture, would make it battle-ready by the end of this decade. By then there will be another aircraft carrier for support.
This is problematic for India in the long run. The Indian Navy currently operates two aircraft carriers – INS Vikramaditya and INS Viraat.
The INS Viraat is set for decommissioning this year, and INS Vikrant, the aircraft carrier being developed indigenously, will not be ready before 2018, provided a notorious delay in manufacturing does not happen.
Military experts have pointed out that by 2020, China will have three aircraft carriers and, therefore, three battle groups.
Besides the South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is also very active in the Indian Ocean Region.
One of these battle groups will be positioned to secure China’s interest in South Asia and to make the String of Pearls dream a reality.
China is already building a port in Gwadar, Pakistan, which it intends to use for both military and civilian purposes. At the same time, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port is another China-project which is being built to effectively strengthen PLAN presence in IOR.
Reports of PLAN submarines docking at Sri Lankan ports have been quite frequent in recent years. Even the Sri Lankan PM has given his nod to future PLAN submarines docking in the island nation.
India’s third aircraft carrier, the INS Vishal, will not be ready before 2025
because it is still in the planning phase. A silver lining comes in US agreeing to help build India’s third carrier and share EMALS technology, but it has to be India’s own indigenous defence production that has to step on the gas. It is important because in his New Year address to his country
, Chinese President Xi Jinping extended his greetings to Taiwan addressing them as “our compatriots” and also mentioned that China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, in other words the Silk Road plan encompassing IOR, has been successful.