Relax: China’s First Aircraft Carrier is a Piece of Junk

Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog urges readers not to panic about China’s “new” aircraft carrier, a former Soviet vessel of early 80s vintage and the first carrier to be deployed by the PLA Navy. Its symbolic weight far outweighs its concrete military value, argues David Axe:

Her new guns are installed. Her light-gray paint job has dried. Her airplanes are flying and her engines are turning. Thirteen years after she was purchased from Ukraine half-complete and lacking engines, the Chinese navy’s very first aircraft carrier is ready to set sail from Dalian shipyard in northeast China. The former Soviet carrier Varyag, renamed Shi Lang in Chinese service, could begin sea trials this summer.

Just how worried should the world be?

The answer depends on who you ask. To China’s closest neighbors, the prospect of a carrier speeding heavily-armed Chinese jet fighters across the world’s oceans is an alarming one. But the U.S. Navy, the world’s leading carrier power and arguably the Chinese navy’s biggest rival, seems oddly unaffected ….

When Shi Lang finally gets underway in coming months, she will boost the ability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to patrol airspace over contested sea zones, provided they’re not too far from the Chinese mainland. And more to the point, she’ll look good doing it. “I think the change in perception by the region will be significant,” Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, told the Senate in April.

Willard said he is “not concerned” about the ship’s military impact.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows links to the article with a “reader’s guide”, whose advice might be applied more generally.

[P]aying attention to China, and taking it seriously, are different from being pie-eyed, gape-mouthed, and otherwise credulous about the overall nature of China’s success. I’m not suggesting that people should be “hostile” to China, though there are aspects of its policy that need to be criticized every day. I’m talking about applying a common-sense BS-detector when you hear the next claim about how rapid, inevitable, trouble-free, and strategically-perfect the Chinese ascent will be. You could think of what I’m worried about as the “Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony” syndrome, or the “I just rode the bullet train to Tianjin, and holy shit, we’re doomed!” approach. Lots of things work in China. Lots of things don’t. We understand that kind of balance immediately when it comes to America — it’s a huge success, with huge failures ….

… China’s military spending is rising very fast, as we always hear. But the starting point is much lower than accounts in the U.S. generally mention. That’s the virtue of this Danger Room article. Yes, the PLA Navy is about to launch its very first aircraft carrier. It will hit the seas some 90 years after the U.S. launched its first aircraft carrier — the USS Langley, which was commissioned in 1922. As anyone in any navy will tell you, simply having a ship is only the beginning to effective carrier operations.

So read the article, please. And don’t read it as belittling China’s progress but rather in giving a realistic perspective toward the golden mean of taking China seriously without being afraid of it.