What do a rusting Russian aircraft carrier, two top-ranking military officers, mounting trade deficits and half a trillion dollars in potential oil and gas in the South China Sea have to do with world peace?
Initially the authors of this article were preparing a short piece on the pending sea trial of China's first aircraft carrier on July 1st. By late June, the long-term implications of that ship on the balance of power in Southeast Asia and the escalating military aggression by China in the South China Sea had both become massive stories. Then an Act III surprise put an interesting spin on each of those stories, while demonstrating why our greatest deterrent to war today is how interwoven the world's economies are, especially between China and the US.
Where you could once say that the fraternal twins of the Soviet empire and the People's Republic of China threatened the world with their domino theory, the new domino effect posits mass societal change with the world turning towards iPads, Facebook, Lady Gaga, and those two crazy things called capitalism and freedom. The result? The Arab spring has sprung. Technology has reshaped the world around the flow of free information, free ideas, and free people.
But again, how is all this intertwined with a rusty, old aircraft carrier?
The Varyag -- China's first aircraft carrier
Appropriately, this story starts with the end of the Cold War in 1991 -- and straight business. When the Soviets halted payments for a new Soviet aircraft carrier being built in Ukraine, the country tried to sell it to the Chinese in 1992. The deal fell through under pressure from Japan and the United States. In 1998, the ship was finally sold for $20 million, with the contract specifically prohibiting the buyer from using the carrier for military purposes.
The buyer, a Hong Kong trading company named Chong Lot, announced plans to convert the ship into a floating casino and hotel complex in then Portuguese-controlled Macau. But as a 2004 Naval War College Review article reveals, Chong Lot's parent companies had secret connections to the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). When the "privately-owned" carrier was towed into the Chinese port of Dalian, it was escorted to a heavily guarded PLAN dock. Two years later when it emerged from dry dock, it bore the same gray paint as all Chinese Navy ships, and no one talks of roulette tables anymore.
For almost a decade, the Chinese, with massive help from the Russians, worked to make the ship seaworthy. The China Post reports that at 67,000 tons, the carrier is two-thirds the size of the 100,000 ton American Nimitz-class flattops. Aviation Week notes the carrier has new living quarters and was refitted with new power systems, engines, radar, as well as long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, SAMs and close-in weapons systems (CIWS).
Want to see for yourself? Click on this Google search and this Xinhua article; scan military enthusiasts' pictures and this BBC video. China wants you to see this. For a real thrill, install Google Earth, and then scan down to Dalian, China at E121°36'41.76, N38°56'2.4". There nestled in the harbor sits the carrier, plain as day.
As the most visible symbol of China's increasing military power, China's first aircraft carrier was to conduct its initial sea tests on July 1st, the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with a formal launch set for October 1, 2012, the anniversary of the People's Republic of China (PRC).