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Will China Rule the Waves

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Judging from all the alarms coming from Washington's national security establishment, revelation of China's first aircraft carrier poses a major threat to world peace and stability -- i.e the Pax Americana.

It does not, but the timing is noteworthy because tensions are fast rising in the disputed South China Sea.

China's first flattop was supposed to be a big secret. But it's hard to conceal a 67,500-ton warship. I've been watching the carrier being refurbished for years at the northern Chinese port of Dalian on Manchuria's Liaodung Peninsula.

Dalian is one of my favorite Chinese cities. I call this beautiful port China's San Francisco. It's renowned for excellent seafood and friendly people.

Just 40 km south of this city, which was developed by the Russians and Japanese in the early 20th century, is the great fortress and naval base of Port Arthur (today Lushun), epicenter of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

China's new aircraft carrier was laid down in the Soviet Union as the Varyag during the 1980's, but was uncompleted when the USSR collapsed. The rusting hulk was sold by Ukraine in 1998 to a Hong Kong-Macau trading company -- ostensibly to be transformed into a floating casino. Three years later, it magically reappeared at Dalian.

The ex-Varyag is the fourth decommissioned carrier bought by China since 1984. Three others, one British, two Soviet, were minutely pored over before being scrapped. Russia supplied technical help to upgrade Varyag and its air component, which may be the navalized version of the Russian SU-33 or a variant. China has run a mocked-up carrier on land since 1985 to train pilots.

The new carrier is nearing completion and may enter service this year. But it will take many years for China's People's Liberation Army navy to develop the pilot and seamanship skills to turn the carrier into an effective weapons platform. Carrier air operations are the most challenging and demanding of all naval operations -- as I saw firsthand when landing and was catapulted off the attack carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

So the screams of horror from America's military industrial complex are way, way premature. The US deploys eleven carrier battle groups -- each costing about $24 billion with escorts, but excluding aircraft.

The mighty US Navy has ruled the waves since World War II, including the waters off China's long coasts. US carrier battle groups face a challenge not from China's infant carrier force, but from a new range of Chinese air, sea, and sub launched anti-carrier missiles. This growing threat now includes the long-ranged, land-based, mobile DF-21 that may be vectored onto US carriers by satellites, subs, or drones.

The prime reasons for China's development of a carrier force and true blue-water navy operating far offshore are India and oil. India and China are undeclared but still very real strategic rivals. In my first book, War at the Top of the World, I predicted the two Asian giants would go to war over their Himalayan border, Burma, and sea control.

As I've twice written in Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, India has been rapidly expanding its naval forces to include nuclear-powered submarines, surface warships and long-ranged naval aircraft -- at a time when some 400 million Indians subsist below the poverty level. By 2015, India may have three operational aircraft carriers. India is determined to keep China's growing navy out of the Indian Ocean, regarded by Delhi as its Mare Nostrum.

China is just as determined to press its claims to the entire South and East China Seas, Yellow Sea and Taiwan Strait, and to extend its naval and political influence into the eastern Indian Ocean, and even as far as the Gulf.

This week tempers flared again over the South China Sea as Vietnam conducted live-fire exercises off its coast, a clear warning to intrusive China which claims most of the sea as its private lake. The Philippines just demanded the South China Sea be called "the Philippine Sea." The two Koreas have been conducting a similar angry nomenclature war with Japan over the Sea of Japan.

China's development of two new naval bases at Gwadar, western Pakistan, and on Burma's coast, has greatly alarmed India and even made the US Navy nervous. Both will link these ports on the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal -- both arms of the Indian ocean-by rail to western China. Successful development of these ports by China will allow it to circumvent the narrow, perilous Strait of Malacca.

In the 1990's, China was still a net exporter of oil. Today, China's massive industrialization and mania for cars has made it dependent on oil imported from the Mideast and Africa. China's oil import supply lines must be protected, particularly so in the event of war with India. It's no secret India would try to choke off China's oil imports in the event of a conflict. The US Gulf-based 5th Fleet and Pacific 7th Fleets could do the same.

Protecting its maritime supply routes is thus a strategic imperative and priority for growing China. Imperial Britain was always strident about its god-given right to defend its "imperial lifeline." Its successor, the United States, has been equally adamant about protecting its world-wide trade, oil, and spheres of influence.

China, inevitably, will follow in their wake.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011