China’s first aircraft carrier begins sea trials as tensions in the South China Sea rise

China’s first aircraft carrier made its maiden voyage from Dalian port. The United States has refused to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. Indian anti-corruption activist, Anna Hazare has been arrested. Russia’s S-500 system could be included in NATO’s missile defense in Europe. All this in today’s security briefing…

China has long sought to explore the world of aircraft carriers, from the purchase of former Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne in 1985, to the acquisition of former Soviet carriers Minsk and Varyag in 1998 and Kiev in 2000. The purchase of the relatively modern Varyag was a significant step in Beijing's attempts to develop its carrier capability leading to a complete remodelling of the ship over the last years which culminated in its maiden voyage from Dalian port on August 10th. Chinese media sources reported that the ship was towed back to Dalian on August 14th, "amid firecracker blasts and cheers". Such public announcements are in stark contrast to Beijing’s mostly secretive military activities such as the testing of a stealth fighter last January and the test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007. The latest developments were welcomed by the Pentagon in approval of China’s relatively transparent approach to the launch of its carrier.

Nevertheless, the carrier, originally purchased from Ukraine, without its engines, rudder, weaponry and operating systems is causing a great deal of frustration amongst neighbouring states such as Japan, the US, Taiwan, Philippines and Vietnam. The latter two are primarily concerned with China’s readiness to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea, and argue that Beijing’s posture has become increasingly aggressive. Japan’s recent defense white paper in particular has expressed concern over Beijing’s development of a carrier. Some argue that similar questions are raised for the US, which needs to develop a strategy to deal with China’s expanding maritime presence, and improve their own power projection capabilities. Questions in Taiwan will also be raised by such developments, as officials debate how useful a carrier will be in conflicts over the Strait.

These assessments, if not wrong, are overblown. China’s own declaration that the carrier is for scientific research and training, is ‘fairly accurate’. Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, agrees with this assessment and does not believe that this carrier could act as a catalyst for further tensions in the South China Sea. Naval analysts Andrew Erikson and Gabriel Collins have classified the carrier as a ‘starter carrier’, an assessment that Ruslan Pukhov, the president of the Moscow Strategy and Technologies Analysis Center seconds.

 

openSecurity verdict: Instead of supplementing the rising tensions in the South China Sea, Beijing’s acquisition of an aircraft carrier needs to be viewed as part of the nation’s desire for international prestige. Currently, all other permanent members of the UN Security Council are in possession of aircraft carriers, in addition to Spain, Italy, India, Brazil and Thailand. It should also be noted that China's recent testing of a carrier has rather limited implications for South China Sea tensions. Given South East Asia's ‘continental threat environment’, the region is hypersensitive to any perceived threat from any nation, and the launch of the carrier is seen through this lens. What this analysis fails to realize are the complex relationships that countries around the South China Sea have developed, and that China is deeply intertwined with other regional economies. Moreover, China is highly dependent on commodity resources, which are linked to its direct investments in the region, and this is not something that Beijing would put at risk. The leaders in China realize that any conflict in the South China Sea would have grave implications for the country and that it rather needs to keep a low profile.

Secondly, the capabilities of the ‘ex-Varyag’ remain limited. The ship operates a ‘ski-jump’ system as opposed to the catapult systems used by American aircraft carriers. This means that the Chinese carrier can operate only smaller aircrafts with limited payloads and lower amounts of fuel, severly reducing the potential use of the carrier. Given these relatively low capabilities, it is safe to argue that the Varyag has been refurbished rather for reasons of research and training. China does not seek to replicate the US naval strategy, but is more likely to defend its regional interests and maintain global resource security.

 

The United States refuses Taiwan’s request for new F-16 fighter jets

The US is unlikely to sell 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighter jets to Taiwan. This is partially because Beijing has already expressed anger in the past over American arms packages for Taiwan; most recently it cut all ties with the US military for nearly a year. This request, along with an upgrade package for nearly 150 F-16A/B fighters have been on hold since 2006 and 2009, respectively. However, it is likely that the upgrades of F-16A/Bs will go ahead under existing legal obligations. With the recent debate on the US debt ceiling, and the possibility of default, it seems that the Obama administration does not currently want to ‘antagonize’ Beijing.

Joe Biden, the US Vice President is currently in China seeking to reassure Beijing about the US financial system and to build ties with the ‘next generation’ of Chinese leaders that are due to take over. Even though both Ma Ying-Jeou and US officials deny that Biden will consult China over the F-16 sale, it is likely that Beijing will exert some pressure on the visiting US delegation over this issue. Any U-turn on this decision is likely to come in during the 2012 presidential elections in the US, as political pressure on Obama for job creation will build up. It is speculated that the F-16C/D program has the capacity to create 16,000 jobs and add $768 million to US federal tax revenue. From a strategic point of view, conservatives have warned that a move to refuse arms sales could result in ‘losing Taiwan’, which would imminently alter the position of the US in Asia Pacific.

 

Anna Hazare, the Indian anti-graft activist was arrested in New Delhi 

Indian civil society activist, Anna Hazare, was arrested by Delhi police on Tuesday morning. He was attempting to protest for a stronger anti-corruption bill, the Lokpal bill, which would place India’s top leadership under surveillance. Following the arrest, the security situation in Delhi, particularly outside Tihar jail where Hazare is being held, has deteriorated significantly. Some 500 of his supporters have also been detained by the police. The government, already facing corruption accusations, has come under significant criticism from the Indian press, increasing risks to political stability. The opposition has suggested that the government has lost ‘all sense of statecraft’ and is inept in handling a political crisis; furthermore, they have warned that they will not allow Parliament to function properly until the government shares its reasoning for not allowing Hazare to protest.

The Union Government, India’s ruling coalition, argues that Hazare and his supporters violated 6 of the 22 conditions established by the government to keep up law and order. This view is reiterated by Ambika Soni, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, who suggested that whenever Parliament is in session, Section 144 is imposed due to security reasons. Therefore, any protests are likely to lead to arrests as the police are on heightened levels of alert. It is clear that the ruling coalition now faces a credibility crisis; some opposition individuals have even drawn comparisons of Hazare’s arrest to the 1975 emergency under Indira Gandhi. With lower investor confidence, a distracted parliament and rising inflation, the security situation in India could deteriorate in the near future.

 

Russian antimissile system may be included in NATO plan for the development of a European missile shield 

Igor Ashurbeili, the former head of air defense producer Almaz-Antei, has brought up the prospect of the integration of the S-500 system into a European missile shield. Russia has made it clear in the past that it is willing to work with the military alliance on the program. This move is partly aimed at increasing Russia’s contribution to the program, instead of just offering its territory for deployment of NATO interceptors. It will also enable the relations between NATO and Russia to improve, as contributing to the program would mitigate fears that the missile shield would primarily be used to undermine Russian nuclear deterrent. If successful, the integration is likely to lead to greater military co-operation between European nations and the US.

About the author

Humayun Saleem graduated with an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His work focuses on South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia.