See end of this post for an interactive guide to China’s aircraft carriers.
In August this year, the world’s attention was caught up in the sea trials of China’s first aircraft carrier, a refitted former Soviet vessel Varyag which China purchased from Ukraine. A few months further back in March, the UK Ministry of Defense put its decommissioned aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal up for bidding. Not surprisingly, it attracted a few Chinese buyers. James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly, told Reuters:
It is very difficult to gauge what is going on here. The links between Chinese businessmen and the Communist Party are always somewhat ambiguous. The Chinese have a reputation for playing a long game, as well as for reverse engineering.
China has in fact played a long game in terms of foreign carrier acquisition. China has been enhancing its carrier technology for the past three decades. During this period, it has acquired four carriers, starting with HMAS Melbourne, a former British-designed Australian aircraft carrier which China purchased in 1985. The remaining three, Minsk, Kiev and Varyag, are all former Soviet vessels.
Melbourne, Minsk and Kiev had all been purchased as scraps, with all the sensitive kits removed. Furthermore, the purchases of Minsk and Kiev were made by businessmen intended to convert them into casinos or theme parks (this is in fact what they are now). However, it is reasonable to assume that they have all been thoroughly surveyed by the Chinese military for naval construction designs, as they sit for years in the dockyards before being transformed into something else.
Varyag is a little bit different. It started life as an unfinished Soviet carrier which was later transferred to Ukraine. It was also the largest and the newest among the four, with technologies from the 1980s. When Ukraine tried to sell it to China in the 1990s, the US pressured Ukraine to remove all the sensitive equipment before doing so. Nonetheless, it was chosen to be transformed into China’s first operational aircraft carrier, after spending years in the naval dockyards in Dalian. Interestingly, like the cases of Minsk and Kiev, Varyag was also intended to be used for entertainment.
With three out of the four aircraft carriers that China purchased being Soviet-designed, it is reasonable for China to refit an ex-Soviet carrier as its first functional aircraft carrier. This brings us to the question of why China is now bidding for a British Ark Royal design. Is it really for a purely business purpose, or is China switching models?
The answer could perhaps be found in China’s purchase history. Its very first purchase of HMAS Melbourne is a Majestic class British light aircraft carrier design dating back to 1942, and has been in use by eight other naval forces until 2001. HMS Ark Royal is also a light aircraft carrier, belonging to the Invincible class which was developed in the 1970s with the successful vertical landing technology.
The other three larger, ex-Soviet vessels variously belonged to the Kiev and Admiral Gorshkov classes, which were both a combination of a carrier and a cruiser, capable of engaging in anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and surface warfare. They thus represent a different design philosophy from that of the British carriers, which are more intended for the projection of air power than providing an air support platform for other guided missile cruisers and submarines, as in the Russian Navy.
Thus, China’s bidding for HMS Ark Royal might signal that it wants to pick up from where it left off at HMAS Melbourne. Perhaps mastering two design philosophies would be the way to go in the complex maritime geographies surrounding China. But another equally plausible reason is that, given that China is far behind in carrier technologies, and the difficulties of purchasing a foreign craft due to the world’s distrust in China’s rise, it has to jump at every bidding opportunities. Only after getting as much on the table as possible can it decide which way to go.
Click here to access an interactive guide to the four aircraft carriers which China purchased from abroad. This is based on two Chinese reports from the Southern Weekend (16 September 2011) and the Caing Magazine (18 July 2011). For optimal viewing, you may need to reset your browser’s zoom setting.