With great fanfare and the presence of such dignitaries as the president and prime minister, the Chinese have launched their first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which does not stand, as you might imagine, for White Elephant, but for the port where it was rebuilt from a Soviet-era hull bought from Ukraine in 1998.
According to NBC, a Chinese naval expert told the People's Daily, "The aircraft carrier will play an important role in China's settlement of islands disputes and defense of its maritime rights and interests." In other words, it is meant to intimidate its maritime neighbors.
However, naval experts said the Liaoning will be used for training, because the Chinese navy has never operated a carrier and its aircraft, 25-year-old Soviet-made MiG-23s, are unsuitable for carrier landings.
The question of whether China goes ahead and builds operational carriers depends on whether its navy can develop aircraft capable of operating from them. A carrier the size of the Liaoning has a capacity of 30 aircraft, a U.S. carrier, 90.
And while this carrier is a point of national pride, there does not for the foreseeable future seem to be much need for it. To truly operate in blue water -- that is, far from China's shores -- would require larger carriers plus the huge number of ships that make up carrier battle fleets. Since China doesn't face any distant offshore threats, it would be a huge sum to spend to buck up national morale.
In the close-in quarters of the South China Sea, where China's island territorial disputes lie, the Liaoning would be vulnerable to land-based aircraft. You Ji, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, told The New York Times, "In the South China Sea, if the carrier is damaged by the Vietnamese, it's a huge loss of face. It's not worth it." Still, even though the carrier cannot yet do what aircraft carriers are supposed to do -- carry, launch and retrieve -- and it doesn't have a clear mission, the Liaoning does buy China membership in that small fraternity of nine nations that have carriers. And maybe that's reason enough for image-conscious China to own one.Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.