China is set to deploy its very own aircraft carrier soon, becoming the first country in Northeast Asia to do so. The Varyag, an aircraft carrier China purchased from Ukraine and has been remodeling at a shipyard in Dalian since 2002, is nearing completion, according to Xinhua News. It has been given the Chinese name "Shi Lang," after an admiral who conquered Taiwan in 1681.
A test voyage is reportedly being mulled for April 23, which marks the establishment of China's Navy, or July 1, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party.
◆ Naval Ambitions
In 2009, China shifted its naval strategy from defending its territorial waters to "defending the open seas" and is seeking to expand its strategic sphere to the Pacific and Indian oceans. China has deployed three naval vessels in waters off the coast of Somalia since 2008 and conducted a massive naval exercise in April last year in which battleships passed by the southern waters of Japan and into the western Pacific. An aircraft carrier is key to achieving that strategy.
An international political expert at Peking University said, "At a time when China's interests span the globe, it does not fit China's national interests to have a naval defense strategy restricted to its territorial waters. It needs aircraft carriers to expand its sphere of operation throughout the world."
It is believed that China has been developing aircraft carriers to secure safe routes for crude oil it imports from the Middle East. It apparently worries that its energy security could be threatened in an emergency in the Indian Ocean and South China and East China seas, which are under U.S. military control. China relies on imports for 60 percent of its oil demand.
◆ Sphere of Influence
Changes are expected in the balance of power and naval dynamics in the Northeast Asia including Korea and Japan. An aircraft carrier travels with a battle group composed of five to eight naval vessels, including Aegis vessels, destroyers and nuclear-powered submarines. If the Shi Lang is deployed on the West Sea, almost all of Korea's air space would be included in the operational theater of China's carrier-based fighter jets, which for the Shi Lang is expected to be between 500 and 800 km, compared to 1,000 km for U.S. aircraft carriers. That is because the SU-33 fighter jets, which are likely to be based on the Shi Lang, have a maximum range of 800 km.
The SU-33 is the naval version of the SU-27 retrofitted for carrier-based operations. While it has inferior capabilities than the SU-27 and is outgunned by Korea's state-of-the-art F-15K fighter jets, it is capable of being launched from an aircraft carrier close to Korea and thus has a wider range of operation. The Chinese aircraft carrier will apparently also carry helicopters equipped with early-warning radar systems, although with a range that is shorter than the U.S.' E-2C early-warning aircraft.
◆ Future Developments
For the time being, the Shi Lang will apparently be used as a test platform for carrier-based fighter jet technology while the Chinese develop aircraft carrier battle strategies. Based on its experience modifying the Varyag, China is constructing a homegrown aircraft carrier in Shanghai. This is expected to be deployed around 2015 or 2016. It plans to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier by 2020 as well.
One diplomatic source in Beijing said, "Based on the technological know-how gained from developing the Shi Lang, China will build two or three more conventional aircraft carriers and a nuclear-powered carrier."