On June 25, China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, departed Qingdao, the largest city in the Shandong Province and an important naval base on the Yellow Sea, for a training mission. The carrier is accompanied by the destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan, the frigate Yantai, and a squadron of J-15 fighter jets and helicopters. This voyage is important for two reasons: the route that the carrier group will take on its trip to the South China Sea and its scheduled port call in Hong Kong. The Liaoning’s travels have made headlines over the past several months because as China’s first—and currently only—carrier its location points to areas where China wants to project its military, especially its naval, power.
THE LIAONING: STRANGER THAN FICTION
As China’s first aircraft, the Liaoning has rightfully received much attention from the international community. The story behind China’s acquisition of the carrier shows how secretive the Chinese are about military matters. In 1998, the Chinese sent former basketball star Xu Zengping to covertly acquire the Soviet-built carrier in the Ukraine. By setting up a shell company and promising to use the carrier as a casino, Xu managed to buy it, and the ship’s blueprints, for USD 20 million after receiving personal loans. The Chinese government had not even guaranteed Xu that it would buy the carrier from him because at the time, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) did not have the funds to purchase the carrier. “I was chosen to do the deal. I realised it was a mission impossible because buying something like a carrier should be a national commitment, not one by a company or an individual,” Xu said. “But my passion pushed me to take on the mission because it was a now-or-never chance for China to buy a new carrier from a nearly insolvent state-owned Ukrainian shipbuilder.”
In order to make the deal less conspicuous, the Chinese government planted information that the carrier’s four engines were removed before the sale. That information was false; the engines were in pristine condition, and one of them alone was worth what Xu paid for the entire carrier. The carrier did not arrive in China until 2002 after being towed 15,200-nautical-miles. Then, for the next decade, Xu’s company revamped all of the ship’s system and its hull before turning it over to the government in 2012. In September of the same year, the newly named Liaoning was commissioned as a training ship in the PLAN. In November 2016, it was characterized as “combat ready” by a Chinese official, and in December 2016, the Liaoning participated in its first-ever live-fire drill.
Much has been made of the Liaoning since 2012, but when compared to other nations’ aircraft carrier and naval capabilities, the importance of the carrier is less a show of China’s actual military might and more a show of China’s potential force capabilities and its probable commitment to building a much more formidable navy. The Liaoning displaces about 60,000 tons, while Japan’s Izumo displaces 27,000 tons, India’s Vikramaditya displaces 45,000 tons, and the United States’ Ronald Reagan displaces 97,000 tons. The Liaoning has a greater length than the Japanese and Indian ships, but not the American one. In terms of speed, the Liaoning is limited due to design flaws; it averages about 20 knots, on par with the Indian Vikramaditya. The Ronald Reagan can achieve a speed of over 30 knots. It also outperforms the Liaoning in number and sophistication of planes aboard due to the Liaoning’s smaller size and aircraft-launching system.
When compared with other carriers, the Liaoning does not seem too impressive, but in a region where few states have any carriers, just having one is a lot. The cloak-and-dagger purchase of the former Soviet ship is already paying off for the Chinese in a limited way, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hopes that this training mission will show the world the PLAN’s potential.
THE ROAD ALREADY TAKEN?
Even though the Liaoning is not the most impressive aircraft carrier in the region, its presence still makes China’s neighbors, particularly Taiwan, wary of the threat that the carrier group poses to their security. During its previous voyage, on its way south, the Liaoning travelled east of Taiwan via the Miyako Strait, and on its way north back to Qingdao, it travelled through the Taiwan Strait, completing the circle around the island. Superficially, this path does not seem like a big deal, but it was a signal to Taiwan—and its allies—that China has the naval capabilities to encircle Taiwan and could launch an attack from any direction.
As one Taiwanese official said, “A PLA exercise that circles around Taiwan is tantamount to challenging and military intimidation to us.”
The carrier group entered the Taiwan Strait on July 1, sailing on the west side, or China’s side of the strait. In response, Taiwan scrambled jets and naval vessels to follow the Liaoning group as it sailed through the strait conducting drills with over 100 units. The Liaoning carrier group’s mission “is expected to strengthen coordination among the vessels and improve the skills of crew and pilots in different marine regions.” This type of training is needed: the Liaoning has really only operated at sea for about eight months. But the more important “mission” is to show off the strength—perceived, actual, and potential—of the PLAN. According to accounts of servicemen in the carrier group, the exercises have achieved that goal, “Through this training, we further tempered our flying skills, psychological quality and combat morale,” said pilot Xu Ying.
HONG KONG PORT CALL
After two weeks of training missions at sea, the Liaoning is set to make a port call in Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of control from the United Kingdom to Great Britain. Early July not only is the 20th anniversary of the handover, but it is also the 80th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which in the Chinese sphere marks the beginning of fighting against the Empire of Japan in World War II.
President Xi Jinping travelled to Hong Kong from June 29 to July 1 to celebrate the handover. It will mark his first time travelling there since becoming president of China in 2013. On July 1, Xi swore in the new government of Hong Kong, headed by Carrie Lam. In a speech during the ceremony, Xi touted the success of the “one country, two systems” format, and said, “The people of Hong Kong, now masters of their own house, run their local affairs within the purview of autonomy of the HKSAR. The people of Hong Kong enjoy more extensive democratic rights and freedoms than at any other time in its history.” The speech showed how happy and honored Xi was to celebrate Hong Kong’s return “home.”
This port call in Hong Kong will be the first time that non-military members will be able to get a look inside the carrier. Chinese citizens on the Mainland have yet to receive that privilege. Thousands of citizens lined up overnight for a chance to get tickets. Allowing the citizens of Hong Kong to be first to tour the carrier would be one way for the CCP to show them how much the Party values them—and regards them as Chinese citizens/subjects/nationals—after months of controversy and protests over the election of the Chief Executive. Having the Liaoning stop in Hong Kong is a strong reminder to dissidents, and supports alike, of the power of China and its control of the “autonomous region.” Hong Kong is a part of China, and getting to tour the carrier group is just one of the many perks of being a part of China.
“Allowing Hong Kong people to see how the Chinese military has developed is a way to boost patriotism. . . . The Liaoning carrier is a calling card for China’s military, and visiting Hong Kong is a rare chance to show its strength and to show confidence to the outside world,” said Zhou Chenming, a military expert, to the South China Morning Post. The patriotism issue is one that the CCP will hope to fix with the celebrations of the two anniversaries and the port call.
It seems that much is riding on the Liaoning’s latest training mission. Different people, groups, and countries have given it diverse meanings and levels of importance. The Chinese want to improve crew competencies and capabilities as well as increase patriotism in Hong Kong, and the Taiwanese and Japanese see the mission as a threat to their security. How prepared the crew are, what the Chinese do with the carrier group, and where it goes after the training mission and port call matter much more than the current mission. A well trained and well equipped carrier group is much more dangerous than one that is only training and preparing to show off to the people of Hong Kong.