At a northern quayside China’s first aircraft carrier dwarfs nearby vessels, its take-off ramp rising higher than the top deck of the cruise ship at the next berth, symbolizing the country’s naval ambitions.
Dalian, where the Liaoning was refitted and undergoes regular maintenance, looks out over the Bohai strait, gateway to the Yellow Sea, and beyond it, Japan and the Pacific Ocean.
Beijing proclaims that China’s rise is entirely peaceful and it has no interest in hegemony, but analysts say its goal is to surpass the naval capability of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and ultimately rival the US Navy, masters of the Pacific.
That will require a number of aircraft carrier battle groups, developed over decades and costing billions of dollars.
The 300-metre (1,000-foot) Liaoning — a Soviet-era vessel Beijing bought from Ukraine — was commissioned in September 2012, and officers have acknowledged that it is not yet ready for combat, with naval fighter pilots taking years to train.
But it is only the first Chinese vessel of its type. Analysts say future carriers will be entirely Chinese-made and ultimately nuclear-powered, vastly extending their range.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is already the world’s largest standing military, and when Chinese President Xi Jinping went on board the Liaoning last year he spoke of building “a powerful people’s navy”.
Xi has made a point of visiting several military bases since taking office and has said that “being able to fight and win battles is the essence of strengthening the military”.
Beijing recognizes the “symbolic significance of carrier power in generating global standing”, said James Hardy and Lee Willett of the British military publisher Jane’s.
In the medium to long term, they said, China will need “an expanding presence around the world” to secure its interests in resources, markets and shipping routes. “A widespread naval presence thus will be required.”
Earlier this year reports in state-run media quoted Wang Min, the Communist Party chief of Liaoning province, as saying a second vessel was already under construction in Dalian and two more were in the pipeline.
The PLA clouds its activities in secrecy, and the military zones at the tip of the Lushunkou peninsula in the city — known as Port Arthur during its time as a Russian, then Japanese colony — are forbidden to outsiders.
Rick Fisher, senior analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said two rival shipyards produced modules for the next carrier last year, one a “slice” of hull and the other a bow.
China has long proclaimed itself as rising peacefully and insists that its military expansion is purely to defend itself.
Washington has 10 aircraft carriers at its disposal, soon to rise to 11 when the USS Gerald R Ford enters service.
For its part Tokyo — which since its World War II defeat has been constitutionally barred from having a military, and instead maintains a “Self-Defense Force” — will soon have a helicopter carrier of its own, which could potentially be adapted to carry vertical take-off fighter jets.
But in recent months Beijing has asserted itself ever more aggressively in maritime territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and several southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea, raising fears of clashes.
It has four ships taking part in the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) joint exercises off Hawaii, which analysts have touted as a step towards improving military ties, and visiting US Admiral Jonathan Greenert was given a tour of the Liaoning earlier this month.
But Beijing also sent a surveillance ship to spy on the RIMPAC drills, according to US reports citing the US Navy.
China’s “behavior in its near seas and its territorial claims suggest that it is going to robustly defend its ‘core interests’”, said the Jane’s specialists.
“As a wide spectrum blue water force, you can say that China is closing the gap on Japan in most areas and outpacing it in others,” they added.
“The PLA has substantial offensive capabilities in the form of ballistic and cruise missiles, fast jets, bombers, amphibious forces, heavy armor, destroyers, frigates and so on, so the idea that it is armed just for self-defence doesn’t really wash.”
By 2030 China could have four or possibly five aircraft carriers in service, including the Liaoning, says Fisher, and could ultimately decide to build as many as 10.
It will be the culmination of decades of ambition, he said, describing Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders’ denunciations of the US and Soviet Union for their “imperialist” military capabilities in the 1950s and 60s as “a reflection of their intense envy”.
“Mao always wanted to have a superpower level of global influence but was also quite happy to condemn those who had it, when he did not,” he said.
“All of Mao’s successors have worked to fulfill a dream of future Chinese strategic dominance.”
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