It is hard to remember the days when doubts surrounded what the eventual fate of the ex-Soviet aircraft Varyag would be. Back in early 2005, the extent of what any of the nerds who love to speculate on such things (in which I include myself) knew was that it had been bought, moved to Dalian, and that the promised casino/tourist attraction had not yet materialised. Over the intervening years it has steadily become more and more apparent that it was being made ready for service with the PLAN, although this was never officially confirmed.
Now, the Chinese government has finally admitted what we were all 99.99% sure of anyway - that it is being made ready as an aircraft carrier, and will enter service some time in the near future. Whilst those who previously characterised aircraft carriers as exclusively the tool of 'imperialist' and 'hegemonic' nations (trans: America and anyone else we don't like) may be mollified by the announcement that it would "definitely not sail to other countries' territorial waters", others may be concerned at the growing might that this carrier represents.
However, the simple fact is that if people are worried about this, they shouldn't be, at least not in the short term. Even if, as is expected, this ship is launched either late this year or next year, it will be a few years until it will be ready for active service, and probably more until the battle group required to escort it and sustain it is ready. Even then, its combat power is likely to be less than that of the major aircraft carriers to be found elsewhere in the world, such as France's Charles De Gaulle.
Beyond even this, even if the potential of this carrier were equal to that of the much bigger carriers owned by the US Navy, the US Navy has far more of them in the Pacific region than the PLAN is likely to have any time in the next ten years. As US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said:
"The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship. The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to pur allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined."
All the same, as a Brit, it is hard not to draw the contrast between the state of the PLAN and that of the Royal Navy. This announcement comes just as the Royal Navy enters an interlude between the old Invincible class going out of service and the new, substantially more powerful Queen Elizabeth-class coming into service.
[Picture: The ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag is towed into Dalian harbour in 2005. Via Wikicommons]