China has long been a suspect for having ambitions beyond its territorial waters. This is because it has been struggling very hard to secure its energy routes from Hong Kong to Port Sudan. Its sea lanes of communication (SLOC) run through the strategic choke points like Bab al Mandab, Strait of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Lombok as well as other strategic naval interest such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Somalia. These lanes are called China’s String of Pearls. This string was described as such, for the first time, in an internal communication of US DOD, titled Energy Futures in Asia. According to this report, the “String of Pearls” describes the manifestation of China’s rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize military forces that extend from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Persian Gulf.
Was China doing something unique which no other country is doing?
China has recently added a precious gem to its String of Pearls; its first aircraft carrier which has just been launched for maiden sea trials. Although aircraft carriers have been in service in many naval forces for decades, the launch of China's first aircraft carrier drew worldwide attention. According to Xinhua, Chinese news agency, the carrier was refitted from an old former Soviet Union vessel and serves mainly as a platform for research, experiment and training. It is true that as a key symbol of a powerful naval force, aircraft carrier is a moving battle platform that can either be used for offense or defense. But their use depends fundamentally on a country's defense policy and military strategy. China's need to defend its long coastline and enormous maritime interests is basically behind the country's resolve to develop aircraft carriers. China has also learnt a lesson from its modern history of humiliation that backwardness leaves one vulnerable to attack.
Between 1840 and 1949, China was attacked from the sea for more than 100 times and was forced to sign a string of unfair treaties due to maritime defense failures. In the 21st century, struggle for maritime interests is becoming increasingly intense as the whole world comes to realize that the seas have become a key space for expansion of national interests and maritime security has become an important sphere of national security. Therefore, building a strong navy that is commensurate with China's rising status is a necessary step and an inevitable choice for the country to safeguard its increasingly globalized national interests.
Will China keep its word that it will never seek hegemony, no matter how developed it is? It may try to but what will China do if the hegemony is thrust upon it? A very recent debt crisis in the US has clearly demonstrated that China is not far from claiming the crown of the globe.
According to Xinhua, Chinese navy fleets had by June escorted 3,953 ships from countries all over the world through the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, among which 47 percent were foreign commercial ships.
China’s plans to enter the blue waters on-board a carrier were known to the world since long but it never admitted that it was indeed building a carrier. Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar was suspected to be a dispersal base for the carrier after an irresponsible remark by defense minister about China’s plans to develop a naval base near the port. Although China distanced itself from these remarks, it however confirmed only last month that it was refitting the old, unfinished Soviet carrier hull bought from Ukraine's government. The world suspects that it was also building two of its own carriers because if Beijing is serious about having a viable carrier strike group, it will need three carriers along with support ships and aircrafts for the carrier group.
In China's neighborhood, India and Thailand already have aircraft carriers, and Australia has ordered two multi-purpose carriers. The United States operates 11 carriers.
The initial reaction from the world is not very significant. The two major countries who would feel threatened are India and the US who have partnered for the sole business of blocking China’s access to Indian and Pacific Oceans. Before the launch, a Pentagon spokesman played down the likelihood of any immediate leaps from China's carrier program. U.S. experts on the Chinese navy agreed.
"A newly-wed couple wants a 'starter home', a new great power wants a 'starter carrier'," Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College and Gabriel Collins, a security analyst, wrote in a note about the carrier launch (www.andrewerickson.com).
"China's 'starter carrier' is of very limited military utility, and will primarily serve to confer prestige on a rising great power, to help the military master basic procedures, and to project a bit of power."
But the carrier is just one part of China's naval modernization drive, which has forged ahead while other powers tighten their military budgets to cope with debt woes. China has been building new submarines, ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles as part of its naval modernization. The country's growing reach at sea is triggering regional jitters that have fed into long-standing territorial disputes, and could speed up military expansion across Asia. In the past year, China has had run-ins at sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The incidents -- boat crashes and charges of territorial incursions -- have been minor, but the diplomatic fallout often heated. The nation most disturbed at this new development is, naturally, India. They always thought that Indian Ocean was “India’s Ocean” but now now they will have to put up with this harsh reality.
"They want to assert their dominance in East Asia as well as the Chinese sea and they have very ambitious plans of asserting their claims over some islands," retired Indian Major General Ashok Mehta, a defense analyst in Delhi, said of China.
"India has lot of catching up to do and the history of India's catching up is not very impressive," he said, noting New Delhi's plan to have three aircraft carriers by 2015.