While an effective carrier may be years away, the program has become a symbol of China’s three-decade long build-up that has seen a sprawling land-based force with largely obsolete weapons transformed into a trimmed down, better trained military with modern warships and submarines, strike aircraft and an arsenal of precision missiles.
For the Chinese navy, the addition of carriers has been a top priority as it builds a force capable of deploying far from the Chinese mainland.
Senior commanders have long argued these warships would enhance Beijing’s capacity to enforce claims over Taiwan and hotly disputed territories in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Chinese military analysts have speculated the Varyag will be based at China’s new naval base at Yalong on the southern tip of Hainan Island, close to the disputed Spratley and Paracel Island groups.
Carriers and their long-range strike aircraft would also enhance the PLA’s capacity to protect key sea lanes that carry China’s massive foreign trade, they say.
The commissioning of complex and expensive warships has considerable domestic propaganda value for the ruling Communist Party as a demonstration that China is becoming a top-ranked naval power.
The U.S. Navy’s fleet of 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers allow it to control vast areas of the earth’s surface and airspace. Only a handful of other nations including Britain, France, India and Russia deploy militarily effective carriers.
“Aircraft carriers are incomparable and cannot be replaced by other weapons,” wrote Senior Capt. Li Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, in an Aug. 21 commentary published on websites linked to the Chinese military. “If a big power wants to become a strong power, it has to develop aircraft carriers.”
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