China’s outfitting of the never-completed Varyag has been one of the worst-kept secrets in military history. Hiding something as large as an aircraft carrier, after all, is difficult in this age of cameras and satellite imaging. And Chinese netizens have been even more active than foreign observers at updating photos of the Varyag at various stages in its development, postulating the timing of deployment, the christening name, and the significance of China’s soon-to-be newest ship in the navy.
“Perhaps rather than what these showcase projects mean for China, the greater question is what is driving Beijing to pursue so many of them.”
Even as Chinese officials consistently pretended the country was not working on the Varyag for active use, Beijing knew that its public relations stance only added to the mystique of China’s naval development. Newspapers and defense journals along the Pacific rim and elsewhere are replete with foreign speculation on the future activities of a more internationally active and aggressive Chinese navy, to say nothing of more sober discussions of the constraints and limitations facing potential Chinese naval ambitions with a single carrier (for now) and no history or culture of carrier operations.
Beijing plays down the Varyag’s significance by emphasizing that even after sea trials, it will take two to five years to fully outfit the carrier and prepare it for active service, and that the Varyag is intended more for training and scientific purposes than for aggressive or even defensive military use. But the more China plays down the carrier, the more foreign voices claim Beijing is hiding its true agenda: to push the United States out of Asian waters and dominate the region.
The attention on the Varyag is, in many ways, misplaced. China is historically a land power. Its biggest security challenges remain at home, across a vast territory that will continue to require large expenditures for manpower, equipment and transportation. China’s historical flirtation with a navy that travels far beyond its immediate neighborhood has been limited. Even the famous voyages of Zheng He could be called frivolous, rather than a serious attempt to dominate seas around the world or even the region.
With the entrance of European navies into Asia, China found itself sorely lacking any real defensive maritime capability. Unlike neighboring Japan, China’s attempts to build up a navy to counter European influence proved ineffective, and the emergent Japanese navy defeated the Chinese fleet. In the long run, however, Japan was doomed once it launched its invasion of China. China’s population and size made it nearly impossible for a foreign maritime power to truly conquer.
China’s extensive geography and high population are its core strength and greatest defense. Even if an invasion from the sea is initially successful, China has the human resources to ultimately either absorb the conqueror (the one land power that was successful in invading China — the Mongols — eventually became subsumed into Chinese culture), or to outlast the invader through a long war of attrition.
STRATFOR has said that one of the reasons China appears bent on expanding its naval capabilities relates to its shifting economic structure. The economic opening and reform instituted by Deng Xiaoping led to a China that is much more dependent upon foreign-sourced raw materials and foreign markets. China’s economic supply lines now cross the globe. Beijing perceives the potential for a dominant naval power, namely the United States, to interrupt those lines, or even to blockade Chinese ports in case of confrontation.
China’s naval expansion, in that case, is not part of a strategy to engage in a naval arms race with the United States or challenge U.S. dominance of the seas. Rather, Beijing intends to build a defensive buffer around China’s maritime periphery. This would conceptually give Beijing the ability, in the event of a confrontation with the United States, to continue carrying out trade, at least with the countries bordering the South China Sea. This in part also explains China’s so-called two-island chain strategy, and its increasing focus on disputed offshore territories, like the Spratly Islands.
But the attention to China’s new aircraft carrier, deep-diving submarine, its space exploration, and similar activities also helps Beijing distract audiences domestic and global from real problems inside the country. China’s ability to refit and sail an aircraft carrier built when the Soviet Union was still around and based on technology from a generation earlier is similar to China’s first manned space launch a few years ago. These projects are costly and address the periphery of China’s strategic needs, but they attract a lot of attention. Overseas, they somehow reinforce the perception of a rising China — and a rising China cannot be on the verge of a major economic and social crisis. Domestically, they are intended to inspire the population — by creating a sense of unity, sacrifice and nationalism — to rally behind an emerging global power.
Like the Three Gorges Dam, this show of China’s capabilities is impressive for a moment, but it does not really address the country’s core needs. As China’s high-speed rail accident shows, such leaps in Chinese showcase technologies are not always perfected in the rush to highlight advancement. Perhaps attention should be placed less on what these emerging showcase projects may mean for China than what is driving Beijing to pursue so many of them. Beijing’s top concern is avoiding an economic and social crisis, and Chinese leaders know that it may be only a matter of time before the Chinese economy faces the same structural limitations that its East Asian counterparts already faced.
The crisis may already be unfolding in China, as three decades of high growth rates give way to more moderate growth and as inefficiencies within the economy become more apparent. Sailing an aircraft carrier off the coast of China may make for great video and breathless speculations of China’s emerging power. But the real show is playing out at home. Stresses among small businesses and migrant laborers, between the economic needs of the central planners and those of local and regional governments, portend the looming question: What happens if China’s economic miracle faces what all economic miracles eventually face — the reality that there is no such thing as unlimited, linear, multidigit growth.