TOKYO/BEIJING: China sent its first aircraft carrier into formal service on Tuesday amid a tense maritime dispute with Japan in a show of force that could worry its neighbours.
China’s ministry of defence said the newly named Liaoning aircraft carrier would “raise the overall operational strength of the Chinese navy” and help Beijing to “effectively protect national sovereignty, security and development interests”.
In fact, the aircraft carrier, refitted from a ship bought from Ukraine, will have a limited role, mostly for training and testing ahead of the possible launch of China’s first domestically built carriers after 2015, analysts say.
China cast the formal handing over of the carrier to its navy – – attended by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao — as a triumphant show of national strength at a time of tensions with Japan over islands claimed by both sides.
“The smooth commissioning of the first aircraft carrier has important and profound meaning for modernising our navy and for enhancing national defensive power and the country’s overall strength,” Xinhua news agency cited Wen as saying at the commissioning ceremony in the northern port of Dali an.
Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply this month after Japan bought the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from their private owner, sparking anti-Japan protests across China.
“China will never tolerate any bilateral actions by Japan that harm Chinese territorial sovereignty,” vice foreign minister Zhang Zhijun told his Japanese counterpart on Tuesday as the two met in a bid to ease tensions.
“Japan must banish illusions, undertake searching reflection and use concrete actions to amend its errors, returning to the consensus and understandings reached between our two countries’ leaders.”
In a sign of the tensions, China has postponed a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties with Japan. But an official at the Japan-China Economic Association said Toyota Motor Corp Chairman Fujio Cho and Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of Japanese business lobby Keidanren, and other representatives of Japan-China friendship groups would attend an event on Thursday in Beijing.
The risks of military confrontation are scant, but political tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies could fester and worries persist about an unintended incident at sea.
“If blood is shed, people would become irrational,” Koichi Kato, an opposition lawmaker who heads the Japan-China Friendship Association and will travel to Beijing, told Reuters.
“Not cutting edge”
For the Chinese navy, the addition of carriers has been a priority as it builds a force capable of deploying far from the Chinese mainland.
China this month warned the United States, with President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, not to get involved in separate territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and US allies such as the Philippines.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in turn urged China and its Southeast Asian neighbours to resolve disputes “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force”.
Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said he thought the timing of the launch was unrelated to the islands dispute.
Rather, experts said it might be associated with China’s efforts to build up patriotic unity ahead of a Communist Party congress that will install a new generation of top leaders as early as next month.
“China is taking another step to boost its strategic naval capability,” Michishita said. “If they come to have an operational aircraft carrier, for the time being we are not super-concerned about the direct implications for the military balance between the US and Japan on the one hand, and China on the other. This is still not cutting edge.”
The East China Sea tensions with Japan were complicated on Tuesday by the entry of Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing calls an illegitimate breakaway, which also lays claim to the islands.
Japanese Coast Guard vessels fired water cannon to turn away about 40 Taiwan fishing boats and 12 Taiwan Coast Guard vessels. Six Chinese patrol ships were also near the islands but four left, leaving two nearby but not in waters Japan considers its own.
Japan protested to Taiwan, a day after lodging a complaint with China over what it called a similar intrusion by Chinese vessels.
Taiwan has friendly ties with Japan, but the two sides have long squabbled over fishing rights in the area. China and Taiwan both argue they have inherited China’s historic sovereignty over the islands.
The flare-up in tension comes at a time when both China and Japan confront domestic political pressures. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government faces an election in months, adding pressure on him not to look weak on China. China’s Communist Party is preoccupied with the leadership turnover, with President Hu Jintao due to step down.
China Launches Carrier, but Experts Doubt Its Worth
BEIJING — In a ceremony attended by the country’s top leaders, China put its first aircraft carrier into service on Tuesday, a move intended to signal its growing military might as tensions escalate between Beijing and its neighbors over islands in nearby seas.
Officials said the carrier, a discarded vessel bought from Ukraine in 1998 and refurbished by China, would protect national sovereignty, an issue that has become a touchstone of the government’s dispute with Japan over ownership of islands in the East China Sea.
But despite the triumphant tone of the launching, which was watched by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and despite rousing assessments by Chinese military experts about the importance of the carrier, the vessel will be used only for training and testing for the foreseeable future.
The mark “16” on the carrier’s side indicates that it is limited to training, Chinese and other military experts said. China does not have planes capable of landing on the carrier and so far training for such landings has been carried out on land, they said.
Even so, the public appearance of the carrier at the northeastern port of Dalian was used as an occasion to stir patriotic feelings, which have run at fever pitch in the last 10 days over the dispute between China and Japan over the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The carrier will “raise the overall operational strength of the Chinese Navy” and help China “to effectively protect national sovereignty, security and development interests,” the Ministry of Defense said.
The Communist Party congress that will begin the country’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition is expected to be held next month, and the public unveiling of the carrier appeared to be part of an effort to forge national unity ahead of the event.
For international purposes, the public unveiling of the carrier seemed intended to signal to smaller nations in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, an American ally, that China has an increasing number of impressive assets to deploy.
American military planners have played down the significance of the commissioning of the carrier. Some Navy officials have even said they would encourage China to move ahead with building its own aircraft carrier and the ships to accompany it, because it would be a waste of money.
Other military experts outside China have agreed with that assessment.
“The fact is the aircraft carrier is useless for the Chinese Navy,” You Ji, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said in an interview. “If it is used against America, it has no survivability. If it is used against China’s neighbors, it’s a sign of bullying.”
Vietnam, a neighbor with whom China has fought wars, operates land-based Russian Su-30 aircraft that could pose a threat to the aircraft carrier, Mr. You said. “In the South China Sea, if the carrier is damaged by the Vietnamese, it’s a huge loss of face,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Up to now, Chinese pilots have been limited to practicing simulated carrier landings on concrete strips on land in Chinese J-8 aircraft based on Soviet-made MIG-23s produced about 25 years ago, Mr. You said. The pilots could not undertake the difficult maneuver of landing on a moving carrier because China does not yet have suitable aircraft, Mr. You said.
The question of whether China will move ahead and build its own carrier depends in large part, he said, on whether China can develop aircraft to land on one. “It’s a long, long process for constructing such aircraft,” he said.
In contrast to some of the skepticism expressed by military experts outside China, Li Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, said in an interview in the state-run People’s Daily that the carrier would change the Chinese Navy’s traditional mind-set and bring qualitative changes to its operational style and structure, he said.
Although the Chinese military does not publish a breakdown of its military spending, foreign military experts say the navy is less well financed than the army and air force.
US enters South China Sea dispute amid complex web of interests
The United States is urging Asian leaders to cool increasingly heated territory disputes in the Asia Pacific – with good reason, say analysts.
The US has intense interest in Asian leaders working things out peacefully. Competing claims to islets or swaths of ocean could disrupt trade – or worse, cut off lanes used by American commercial shippers, as well as the US Navy.
Senior American officials have visited Asia twice this month alone, to the chagrin of China, urging calm in a region where maritime clashes have become a near daily threat since April.
“The United States will try to keep everyone in check, sending the message that ‘this is the line you don’t want to cross’,” says Alex Chiang, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “The United States doesn’t want to see China become more powerful and more influential in the region.”
Vessels from Japan, China, and Taiwan have squared off this month over eight uninhabited islets 137 miles from Taipei but controlled by Tokyo. The dispute has driven tens of thousands of Chinese to join anti-Japan demonstrations.
China and Japan also dispute an undersea oil field east of Shanghai, while Japan claims the Dokdo islets that are controlled by South Korea.
Beijing also claims the 1.4 million square-mile South China Sea – rich in fisheries as well as undersea oil and gas. In April it entered a tense standoff with the Philippines over rights to part of the ocean. Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim all or part of the South China Sea as well.
Then there is the matter of the US being obligated by security pacts or acts of Congress to help defend Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines – all located off the east coast of rising military power and US cold-war rival China. But today the US also needs China, a low-cost manufacturing base and major market for US exports. An open conflict among disputants could throw US trade, shipping, and naval exercises out of whack.
US officials may be giving leaders of its smaller allied nations in Asia detailed suggestions in private on how to work out differences with China, says Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. “That means the US is going to continue a containment policy from when China was behind the Iron Curtain, but since [China’s] opening it needs to make sure they have a voice in international affairs,” he says. “They also want to make sure US interests in the region are protected.”
Treaties bind the US to Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines
After World War II, when Japan was weak and communist China seen as a threat, the US government gave many former frontline islets to Japan or put them under its own protection.
A 1951 Security Treaty still requires the US to back up Japan during an attack, and a US-Japanese agreement in 1971 gave administrative rights over the eight inhabited East China Sea islets to Tokyo, which calls them the Senkaku. A Mutual Defense Treaty, also signed in 1951, obligates the US to support the Philippines militarily, while a 1979 act of Congress says the US government must consider the defense needs of Taiwan if that island comes under fire.
China is seen as the most likely aggressor toward all three. Yet it is the United States’ second-largest trade partner, after the European Union, with two-way trade totaling $539 billion last year.
“If armed force [was] used to resolve the conflicts, there would almost certainly be a negative effect on US-China trade and East Asian regional economic development and integration,” says Scott Harold, associate political scientist with the American think tank RAND Corp. “No one would win from a nonpeaceful outcome.”
Still, China has rebuffed US advice that it cooperate more with other South China Sea claimants, and anti-Japan activists are ready to protest against the US if Beijing accuses it of backing Japan in the East China Sea.
“If China believes that the US government has stuck its hand in the dispute, then it should take that up with the US side,” says Zhang Likun, member of the China Federation to Protect the Diaoyu Islands, China’s name for the Senkaku.
Washington relies on international conventions, which allow American ships to pass through the massive exclusive economic zones of Asian countries seeking more control over the seas, Mr. Harold says. International laws could be eroded only if one claimant forced others out of its zone.
About half the world’s shipping traffic passes through the South China Sea, and US vessels make up a large portion of that traffic. By 2020, some 60 percent of US naval ships will be based in the Pacific, part of a “pivot to Asia” policy formulated from last year.
“If a dispute escalates, insurance rates for shipping will spike, and that will affect the US and other countries,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies. “If tankers could not safely pass through those waters, supply of oil to Japan, a key US ally, would be threatened.”
Near Disputed Isles, Japan Confronts Boats From Taiwan
TOKYO — The Japanese Coast Guard used water cannons on Tuesday to disperse fishing boats from Taiwan in waters claimed by Tokyo, widening a territorial dispute that has already pitted Japan against China and threatened vital trade relations in the region.
Japan’s top government spokesman, Osamu Fujimura, said Tokyo had lodged a protest with Taiwan’s government over the intrusion into waters off a chain of islands claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.
Tokyo’s protest came just a day after a similar open-sea confrontation with Chinese fishing vessels off the islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu.
Though the islands are uninhabited, they are near coveted fishing grounds and potentially large gas reserves, and their status touches on historical grievances in East Asia dating to Japan’s behavior during and before World War II.
Taiwan’s government generally maintains friendly relations with Japan but activists there, as in mainland China and Hong Kong, have made their voices heard in the brewing dispute over the islands.
The Japanese public broadcaster, NHK, broadcast footage that showed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel blasting water at a Taiwanese fishing boat. Another Taiwanese boat tried to spray water back.
The Coast Guard said more than 40 Taiwanese fishing boats and eight patrol craft briefly approached the disputed islands. The boats had since left the waters, the coast guard said.
Tensions between Japan and China erupted earlier this year when the governor of Tokyo, a well-known nationalist, angered Chinese activists by announcing that he wanted to buy three of the disputed islands from their owner, a Japanese citizen. He said he believed that Japan’s central government was not doing enough to defend them.
The uproar over the governor’s threat prompted the central government to buy the islands instead — a move that Japanese officials stressed was to prevent them from falling into more provocative hands. But in China, the move was seen as an effort to assert Japanese control, setting off angry demonstrations. Some of the protesters attacked Japanese businesses.
In an effort to calm the dispute, Japan’s vice foreign minister, Chikao Kawai, met Tuesday in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, Zhang Zhijun. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the two sides had talked about ways to handle the dispute but indicated that no substantive progress had been made.
In a statement, Mr. Zhang said Japan “must use concrete actions to amend its errors.”
After the meeting, Mr. Kawai said he had explained to Mr. Zhang that Japan’s purchase of the islands was aimed at their “peaceful and stable” administration, according to the Jiji Press news agency.
China’s State Council Information Office issued a white paper on Tuesday that reiterated the claim that the islands belong to China. It came as China and Japan were expected to give dueling presentations on the subject at the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Chinese Regime’s First Aircraft Carrier Not Ready, Say Experts
In a heated dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, China officially put its first aircraft carrier into service Tuesday, according to China’s Defense Ministry.
The Chinese regime says the aircraft carrier, renamed Liaoning, has undergone extensive sea trials, but military experts say the aircraft carrier is not ready to be used for combat yet.
Aircraft carriers in full operation can be used to carry out medium-to-long distance maritime activities, and project force on remote locations.
The development of this new weapon by China is of particular interest given China’s several conflicts with other East Asian nations in the South China Sea—the current flash point over the Senkaku Islands is only one of several territorial disputes.
The deployment of aircraft carriers is a prerequisite for a leading Asian naval power according to Li Jie, a China Navy Military Academy researcher.
China’s Minister of Defense, Liang Guanglie, reportedly told his Japanese counterpart in 2009 that “China would not be without an aircraft carrier forever.”
The aircraft carrier is 300 meters (990 feet) long and refitted from a former Soviet vesselVaryag, bought from the Ukraine in 1998, according to a report by The Associated Press (AP).
The Varyag has been tested in the Yellow and Bohai seas since last August, according to Shanghai Daily. The report also quoted Li Jie as saying that the aircraft carrier would play an important role in China’s dealing with island disputes and defending its national interests.
Furthermore, the Shanghai Daily report claims that the ship shall soon be accompanied by destroyers and frigates to construct an aircraft carrier fleet.
“There are a whole range of engineering and operational tasks the Chinese need to work through before they have an aircraft they can reliably operate from a carrier,” said Carlo Kopp, as quoted by Reuters. Kopp has studied China’s aircraft carrier aviation program as part of his work for an independent military think tank.
“Even when the Varyag is operational, it will only have a limited operational role, mostly for training and evaluation ahead of the anticipated launch of China’s first domestically built carriers after 2015, military analysts say,” according to the Reuters report.