The Long, Strange Trip of China’s First Aircraft Carrier

And what it says about Beijing’s naval ambitions.

This photo taken on September 24, 2012 shows China's first aircraft carrier, a former Soviet carrier called the Varyag, docked after its handover to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning province. China's first aircraft carrier was handed over on September 23 to the navy of the People's Liberation Army, state press said, amid rising tensions over disputed waters in the East and South China Seas. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

It’s an epic saga made for Hollywood: the long, strange odyssey of China’s highest-profile weapons acquisition in decades — the aircraft carrier Liaoning, née Varyag — from unfinished Soviet navy hulk purchased in 1998 to operational warship plying the Asian seas. Named after a Chinese province, China’s only aircraft carrier debuted in 2012 to great fanfare. It’s far from unusual for weapons development to take years in the making. But it’s not every day that a private citizen buys a major warship, donates it to the navy, and sees it become the pride of fleet and nation. Happy ending, right?

Not exactly. Turns out the buyer got stiffed — and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) has the scoop. In a series of stories published in January, reporter Minnie Chan detailed how army basketball star-turned-business tycoon Xu Zengping purchased the Varyag from a shipyard in Ukraine — a process that took almost an entire decade. He did so at the behest of naval-aviation enthusiasts within the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), who wanted China to join the exclusive club of nations that operate floating airfields.

Xu claims he bid $20 million of his own money at auction, then financed the Varyag’s long voyage from the Black Sea to the South China gambling enclave of Macau. The gambit ended up costing him a total of roughly $120 million — small change for a government, but a mind-boggling sum for an individual. Xu gambled that a grateful Beijing would add the ship to the PLAN — and reimburse him for it. Beijing ultimately did accept custody of the carrier, but, Xu says, refused to pay. “I just handed it over to the navy,” Xu told Chan.

What does this tale say about China’s navy? That Beijing is a cheapskate, perhaps. But more importantly, it reaffirms three long-standing patterns in Beijing’s bid for sea power. Oh, and guess what? Now, a second aircraft carrier is reportedly in the works.

Patriot games and money on the table

Nationalism suffuses China’s seaward quest. Chinese patriots take inspiration from — and in turn impel — the PLAN’s high-seas exploits. Sure, Xu took love of country to extremes, but he’s far from alone in his ardor for an oceangoing navy. Beijing has tapped an undercurrent of popular sentiment for seaborne exploits, and officials from President Xi Jinping on down prime the pump regularly to keep the public support flowing. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, exhorted China to make itself into a maritime power. Xi has gotten with Hu’s program wholeheartedly since assuming power in 2012, making speech after speech extolling the wonders of sea power. “We need to do more to take interest in the sea, understand the sea, and strategically manage the sea, and continually do more to promote China’s efforts to become a maritime power,” Xi told an audience of top Chinese officials in July 2013.

Driven by popular fervor and the generous budgets it begets, the PLAN is making itself into a serious fighting force. Chinese military spending is estimated to have reached $180 billion in 2014; the fraction allocated to the navy is unknown, but certainly substantial.

While this total represents only about a third of U.S. defense spending for that year, bear in mind that Beijing is spending that sum just to dominate the waters immediately off its shores — a minor subset of the world’s oceans and seas. Meanwhile, Washington is trying to face down China in its home waters, police the rest of the global commons, deter Russia and Iran, and fight the Islamic State and other terror groups on land. In short, it’s trying to manage events everywhere with only triple the PLA’s budget. Don’t be taken in by simple budgetary comparisons that supposedly demonstrate American supremacy by the numbers.

Besides, the gap is narrowing. China’s defense budget routinely grows at double-digit rates, while U.S. defense spending has declined for five years running. The PLAN now fields 190 major combat vessels and could overtake the U.S. Navy in number of hulls by 2020.

The PLAN is catching up in capability as well, putting diesel submarines and advanced surface combat ships to sea in large numbers. The Liaoning, however, constitutes more than an aircraft carrier. It’s a talisman. To Chinese eyes, the flattop’s debut signified China’s return to great power following a “century of humiliation” at the hands of seaborne conquerors.

Remember, great powers operate aircraft carriers: China has joined this elite club, and bucked up national pride in the process. Jubilation swept the country when the flattop went into service. When the first aircraft landed aboard the Liaoning in 2012, clips of ordinary Chinese mimicking the actions of the flight-deck crew — known as “shootering” — went viral. Commemorative coins celebrating the flattop’s commissioning were struck and distributed (including to foreign commentators such as yours truly). China even has its own knockoff of Top Gun.

Indeed, Beijing in 2015 bears a discomfiting resemblance to Berlin circa 1900, where fleet professors, navy leagues — clubs bringing together navy veterans with fellow sea-power enthusiasts to spread the gospel of sea power — and many other actors worked ceaselessly to drum up public support for a German battleship fleet.

Public diplomacy in China is replete with imagery conveying a simple message: China has a grand maritime destiny of its own to fulfill. For example, China’s most renowned mariner, the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He, was a fixture at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He featured as prominently as Confucius during the festivities. That’s good company to keep.

Indeed, Beijing has made Zheng’s 15th-century voyages to the Indian Ocean — journeys meant mainly to restore diplomatic and trade ties with South Asian states — into a metaphor for Chinese sea power today. These were not adventures in territorial conquest, Beijing ceaselessly points out to foreign audiences, but journeys linking an economy to resources and markets. The Ming seafarer thus presents a soothing visage to Asians worried about China’s military rise, and that’s exactly the face Beijing wants to present.

Imperial Germany’s bid for sea power took an ugly turn, giving rise to a naval arms race against Great Britain and helping precipitate World War I. Could a China emboldened by carrier fleets follow the German trajectory? That’s a question worth pondering as Chinese shipwrights lay the keels for more — and brawnier — vessels of war, cheered on by party officials and rank-and-file citizens alike.

A floating weapons laboratory

As outsiders eye China’s naval buildup, they should remember that not everything China’s navy does conforms to some master scheme bequeathed by potentates of the ruling Chinese Communist Party or by naval commanders. The PLAN has an inquisitive, innovative streak that can prompt unorthodox decisions. Commanders and engineers understand that they’re playing catchup vis-à-vis the U.S. Navy, their chief competitor. They understand they have to explore all options to level the playing field or reverse the naval balance. For the past 20 years, consequently, “fleet experimentation” has been the watchword for the navy’s rise to regional eminence.

That means using warships not just as fleet workhorses but as test beds for yet-to-be-proven machinery, concepts, and tactics. If Beijing wants to develop, say, a new guided-missile destroyer (DDG) — a vessel suitable for defending an aircraft carrier against air, surface, or subsurface attack, or for leading surface forces of its own — it commissions shipbuilders to construct a few apiece of several different DDG designs and send them to sea. Routine cruises and exercises double as field trials for the ideas and hardware that comprise fighting ships.

In other words, crews take their vessels to sea to investigate what works and what doesn’t in each design. It’s one thing to draw up blueprints for machinery in a laboratory, quite another to expose that machinery — to seawater, salt air, heavy weather — and see whether the design will stand up to the elements. Shipbuilders glean insights from fleet sailors. Naval architects cull out the worst features while incorporating the best into subsequent ship classes.

Fleet experimentation thus yields cumulative progress. The late Rear Adm. Wayne E. Meyer reduced to a slogan: ”Build a little, test a little, learn a lot.” Its experimental mindset has served the PLAN well. After tinkering with DDG designs for over a decade, for instance, navy leaders appear satisfied with their latest destroyer, the Type 052D — and ordered it into mass production in 2012.

The Liaoning constitutes a fleet experiment of one. Why not experiment with a single new platform on the cheap if opportunity beckons? While its origins were bizarre, the carrier project nonetheless conforms to the PLAN’s experimental approach. Whatever lessons the Liaoning crew learns from operating at sea will feed into future Chinese-built flattops. Indeed, these lessons found their way into the design of the second carrier, currently under construction.

Disinformation in plain sight

Xu’s aircraft-carrier caper, lastly, offers a reminder that China has a penchant for surprising foreign observers with new ships, combat aircraft, and armaments. Indeed, most PLAN platforms debuting over the past decade have come as at least mild shocks to China watchers.

How does Beijing pull this off? Concealment is one method for fooling outsiders about the pace and scope of China’s naval progress. It is possible to hide a modest-sized vessel such as a DDG, frigate, or submarine during the early phases of construction. And indeed, fabricating major ship components indoors — and thus out of sight of satellites and other prying eyes — is standard fare for the PLAN.

It’s one thing to manufacture relatively compact vessels under cover. A Chinese DDG, for instance, displaces under 10,000 tons. The Liaoning displaces around 60,000 tons. Trying to refit a ship of such proportions — a behemoth public-affairs specialists commonly dub a “floating city” — while escaping notice would verge on unthinkable.

So rather than try to hide the carrier project, Beijing encouraged rumor-mongering about it. One rumor proved especially convenient. As South China Morning Post’s Chan explains, the Ukrainian shipyard sold Xu the hulk on condition that it not be put to military use. To close the deal, Xu spun a cover story assuring the sellers that the Varyag was destined for conversion into a casino in Macau — a sort of floating Las Vegas.

From the turn of the century forward, Beijing kept quiet about its plans — and China watchers in the West debated as to whether the PLAN truly meant to use an old Soviet vessel as its vehicle for breaking into the aircraft-carrier business. The prospect seemed far-fetched. And indeed, distinguished scholars disparaged its military capacity and depicted it as a symbol holding no meaningful combat value.

Another canard — still circulating among reputable sources as recently as 2013 — was that work had stopped on the Varyag before its main engines were installed. If so, Chinese engineers would have had to cut into its hull to install a propulsion plant — a massive, hard-to-conceal undertaking, and incontrovertible proof that Beijing had more in mind for the ship than gambling and booze.

By contrast, not installing an engineering plant left intact Xu’s fanciful cover story about a carrier-cum-casino. Tethered to a dock, a floating gambling palace needs no steam turbines or propellers to drive it through the water. Xu now discloses, however, that he discovered “four intact engines” in the behemoth’s innards. They had been “perfectly grease-sealed” to preserve them for future use. (Likewise, the U.S. Navy commonly fills machinery with Cosmoline, a petroleum jelly that prevents rust, so it can be reactivated in the future. Xu refers to a similar Ukrainian procedure.)

It’s always tempting to ascribe such trickery to Chinese strategic lore. Sure, tradition doubtless plays some part. China’s grand master of warfare, Sun Tzu, depicted power politics as an enterprise founded on deception. Likewise, the founding chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, instructed generals and statesmen to miss no opportunity for deceit.

Such maxims are etched into China’s way of diplomacy. But something more than its strategic canon is at work — something elemental, and hardly unique to China: the logic of being a rising power. A contender like China, bent on unseating an entrenched power like the United States, must deploy every resource and tactic at its command — including chicanery. At the same time it must soft-pedal its rise, muting its rival’s forebodings about a coming contest for supremacy. A fretful antagonist is a dangerous antagonist — a complacent or inattentive one less so.

If the PLAN wants to run an aircraft-carrier experiment in plain sight — and meanwhile hurry the nation toward its seafaring destiny — it’s apt to embrace unorthodox methods. That includes saying yes when a private citizen proffers a gift of advanced weaponry, and testing out the new kit to bolster the future fleet’s combat capacity.

It also includes misleading others. China inclines to deception in the first place, and it had every incentive to deceive about its aircraft-carrier ambitions. One doesn’t have to like Beijing’s goals, but you do have to admire its handling of l’affaire Liaoning.


James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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