The launch on Wednesday, 10 August, of China’s first aircraft carrier could be seen as the second in a potent two-punch combination directed at the United States. Last week, after America lost its AAA credit rating, it had to swallow China’s harsh words on its financial health. Now, with the global economy reeling and Wall Street volatility hitting 2008 levels, the US’s military supremacy has sustained a hit too. By KEVIN BLOOM.
In August 2011, as the world teeters on the brink of another economic recession, there’s something eerily symbolic about the silhouette of the USS Intrepid at Pier 86 in New York City. Saved from the scrap heap and installed as the hub of a maritime museum in1982, the WWII-era aircraft carrier was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986, and in 2001 served as the temporary field headquarters of the FBI during its investigation of the 9/11 attacks. Although less famous than the Statue of Liberty and Arturo Di Modica’s Wall Street Bull, the vessel’s metaphorical value seems to have outlived them both – it’s America’s military might that most expresses the country’s dominance nowadays, not (as at certain times in the past) its status as a protector of human freedoms and deliverer of global wealth and prosperity.
As a reminder of this truth, America’s waning financial supremacy was dealt a bitter blow last week when Xinhua, China’s official news agency, called on the country to address its chronic debt problems. “For centuries, it was exuberant energy and innovation that sustained America’s role in the world and maintained investors’ confidence in dollar assets,” the agency observed. “But now, mounting debts and ridiculous political wrestling in Washington have damaged America’s image abroad.”
Noting that such statements out of Beijing’s mouthpiece would have been unthinkable five (or even three) years ago, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos couldn’t help adding that the commentary was “dripping with sanctimony and self-regard”. He did, however, concede that what Xinhua was reflecting was not only the poor state of American financial health, but – more significantly – the historic reshuffling of power on the planet.
On Wednesday (10 August) that power balance shifted even further. China’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet vessel once known as the Varyag, left the northeastern port of Dalian for what analysts termed a test of its rudder, propulsion system and other basics. A forceful demonstration of a years-long effort to create a carrier presence in the region, the launch comes in the midst of growing naval competition with the US and Japan, and is seen as a direct threat to Taiwan (which within hours of the trial unveiled an “aircraft carrier killer” missile).
Unsurprisingly, in its comment on this important item of geopolitical news, Xinhua was less strident than it had been five days earlier. After upbraiding the United States for mismanaging the debt crisis, the agency sought to downplay China’s global ambitions as read by outsiders in the test of the carrier. “Although aircraft carriers have been in service in many naval forces for decades,” it declared with chagrin, “the debut of China’s first aircraft carrier drew worldwide attention.” The commentary then went on to note that, until now, China has been the only permanent member of the UN Security Council not to own an aircraft carrier, and that the country’s need “to defend its long coastline and enormous maritime interests” lies behind its decision to develop a carrier fleet. At the foot of the piece, Xinhua included a link to a list of the ten largest carriers in service worldwide – from the 117,200-ton USS Theodore Roosevelt to the 110,000-ton USS Nimitz, they were all counted as the property of the United States.
Was Xinhua protesting too much? The experts seemed to think so. “By itself, the ship does not erode the credibility of America’s military presence in the region nor greatly increase China’s power projection capabilities,” Dr Ian Storey, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told the Guardian. “Nevertheless, the vessel is a potent symbol of China’s aspirations to become a global maritime power and is yet another indication that the military balance of power is gradually shifting in China’s favour.”
Also, reporting from Dalian for Time magazine, Austin Ramzy wrote: “The Varyag’s launch comes at a fraught time. China’s armed forces are modernising – military spending has grown by an annual average of 15% since 2000 – and after a decadelong charm offensive in East and Southeast Asia, Beijing has begun taking a more aggressive stand on territorial disputes. Several factors are driving this tougher approach, including the possibility that disputed waters may have valuable energy reserves, a desire to challenge the regional influence of the US, the ever present influence of nationalism and a fear of looking weak before next year’s leadership transition.”
In light of these circumstances, the history of the Varyag is revealing. The ship was one of the Soviet Union’s last naval commissions; in 1992, six years after the USS Intrepid was declared a national monument in New York, its construction on the Black Sea was abandoned. A Chinese company bought the hulk in 1998, with the intention of towing it to Macau for use as a floating casino. But Turkish authorities blocked passage through the Bosphorus until 2001, around the same time the FBI took over the Intrepid. When it was found that Macau’s harbour was too shallow to accommodate it, the Varyag was sent to Dalian, where the Chinese navy set about completing its construction.
In the legacy of two aircraft carriers, the US’s Intrepid and China’s Varyag, lies a metaphor of global change – the former saved from the scrap heap for gainful employment as a floating museum, the latter salvaged from the ruins of a dead superpower for operational use by a rising one. What seems most profound, though, is that when China’s ambition of building a carrier fleet is fully realised, even the Intrepid may have lost its potency as a symbol of American might. DM
Photo: China’s first aircraft carrier is seen at its shipyard at Dalian Port in northeast China’s Liaoning province, in this still image taken from a July 27, 2011 video. China launched the vessel, a refitted former Soviet craft, for a maiden run on August 10, 2011, a step likely to boost patriotic pride at home and jitters abroad about Beijing’s naval ambitions. Video taken July 27, 2011. REUTERS/CCTV via Reuters TV.
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