Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 6

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

China’s new ex-Soviet, ex-Ukrainian aircraft carrier is now in a Dalian navy shipyard. Could the partially completed Kuznetsov-class carrier Varyag become the first aircraft carrier of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)? Or will it instead be a Macao gambling casino? The odds are at least even.

Those who would gamble on the casino have some precedent on their side. In 1998, a Chinese firm purchased the smaller ex-Soviet Pacific Fleet antisubmarine carrier Minsk from a South Korean scrap yard and, despite its condition at the time, did a great job refurbishing it. The Minsk now resides in a Guangzhou port with some ex-Soviet aircraft on deck, akin to the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier museum in New York City. In 2000, the Kyiv, sister of the Minsk, was purchased to form the centerpiece of an entertainment park in the northern port of Tianjin.

The Varyag (ex-Riga) was a rusting hulk when an obscure Macau firm reportedly purchased it for US$20 million in 1998. It was 70-percent complete when construction was halted in 1993. Photos of the ship being towed to China show great corrosion and wear on its hull. That the Varyag is now on its way to a large Chinese Navy shipyard in Dalian, however, is not inconsistent with a fun-life future. Such a conversion would, after all, take a large yard to accommodate hull repairs and to outfit the interior with the luxuries necessary for a top-flight casino, though deck refitting (as a helioport to shuttle tycoons) would be minor.

But there is also much to commend those who would wager that the Varyag will eventually end up in the East Sea Fleet. For starters, the Macau company that purchased the Varyag is run by ex-PLAN officers. It is also curious that it took the “highest levels” of the Chinese government–plus Chinese financial “persuasion”–to convince the government of Turkey to allow the Varyag to transit the Bosphorous Strait.

China has long wanted to build aircraft carriers. In 1973, former Premier Zhou En Lai reportedly said, “I am not satisfied with the fact that China does not have its own aircraft carrier.” If you go to Shanghai, not far from the headquarters of the East Sea Fleet, you can find a newly built monument to the Chinese Navy’s aircraft carrier ambitions, a building in the shape of a nearly full-size carrier in a riverside park. The East Sea Fleet is thought to be the likely host for the PLAN’s future carrier force.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the PLAN and at the time the only naval officer to become top vice chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, approved an ambitious research and development program for aircraft carriers. In 1985, the PLAN reportedly built a simulated carrier deck for jet fighter training. Then, in 1997, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) released a photo of a large Chinese carrier model floating on a lake.

On top of this, since the early 1980s the PLA has been gathering actual carriers and all assorted carrier information to build a detailed database. In 1985, it purchased the Australian carrier Melbourne. In 1995, the Spanish company Bazan pitched its large conventional carrier concept to China. In 1996, the Far Eastern Economic Review [FEER] reported that China had tried to buy the soon-to-be-retired French carrier Clemenceau. Since then, China is reported to have purchased the engineering blueprints for the Soviet Kyiv-class carrier. Subsequently, it bought the Varyag. It might well be that the Varyag was purchased simply as a way to expand the PLAN’s carrier information database.

But, were the Varyag to make it into China’s fleet, it would be with a touch of irony, given that its original destination was the Soviet Pacific Fleet. Liu Huaqing was an ardent admirer of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, longtime leader of the Soviet Navy. Gorshkov was prolific, writing many tomes seeking to justify a large navy to a Soviet military establishment dominated by Army tank and artillery generals. He succeeded, but only in the context of building a large fleet to protect nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)–the ultimate artillery. The Kuznetsov-class, Gorshkov’s major achievement for his surface fleet, is smaller than U.S. aircraft carriers and carries far fewer aircraft. But its mission is not to project power across the globe. It was intended merely to extend the air cover for Soviet Navy ships designed to protect SSBNs, all within the cover of land-based bombers.

Liu Huaqing was unable to persuade his political bosses to build a carrier in China before his retirement in 1998. In the 1990s, China’s leaders tasked the PLAN with playing a leading role in the “recovery” of Taiwan, but one that did not require expensive carriers. Carriers, they pointed out, would need a new large base with a sufficient logistic support network, a highly specialized aircraft wing with fighters and support aircraft, plus several ships for defense and underway replenishment. Liu’s known legacy to the PLAN is a series of programs to build new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, a new conventional submarine and new classes of destroyers.

Other political variables, however, may indicate that a decision has indeed been made to refurbish the Varyag for the PLAN. Three years ago the United States mistakenly bombed the PRC Embassy in Belgrade, igniting a national wave of America-bashing. How better for China to stand up to the American bully than to get its own big stick on the cheap? After all, China’s 1996 purchase of Russian Sovremenny destroyers was in part a response to its pique at the U.S. deployment of carriers in response to a dust-up over Taiwan in March of that year.

In addition, the PRC leadership is very much aware, following the Gulf War, the Balkan War and the successful campaign to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, that carriers are synonymous with global power status. India is going to acquire the last Russian Kyiv-class carrier–named, incidentally, the Gorshkov–and convert it to carry MiG-29 fighters. It may be that China’s leaders crave the respect they believe would follow their obtaining a real aircraft carrier.

Could China rebuild the Varyag into a functioning aircraft carrier? In the early 1990s the PLAN did successfully refurbish a Ukrainian-built replenishment ship in China, but, of course, a carrier is a much larger beast. In theory, yes, China could refurbish the Varyag, but only at enormous expense. It is likely that China’s modern shipyards are capable of the necessary repairs. Perhaps plans to do so are already underway. In early 1999, FEER reported that both British and French firms were vying to refit the Varyag with new electronic and aircraft landing systems.

As for its future carrier air wing, in 1997 ONI speculated that China would develop a carrier version of its Chengdu J-10 fighter, which will soon enter production. At a reported maximum take-off weight of about 42,000 pounds, the J-10 is one-third lighter than the Russian Su-33, meaning less strain on the deck. The J-10 also has a tail-in-front or “canard” configuration, which enables a faster take-off, made necessary by the Varyag’s use of a ski-jump instead of a catapult for aircraft launching. And the J-10 will be no slouch. Its performance may be comparable to still respectable early models of the U.S. Lockheed-Martin F-16C. If the Europeans do pitch in, the Varyag’s radar and electronic outfit could also be formidable. And sources in Taiwan note that two new destroyers now under construction in China could be configured as carrier escorts.

Now any U.S. carrier admiral will tell you that a credible aircraft carrier capability requires at least three carriers, due to needed maintenance and deployment schedules. But perhaps China’s leaders merely require one carrier to occasionally scare their neighbors and the Americans. In its probable configuration, the PLAN’s Varyag might also be best suited for protecting the PLAN’s new SSBNs that may need only to go as far as the contiguous Yellow Sea to launch their missiles-which would please the PLA’s Army-heavy leadership.

Admiral Liu is reported to have said, “I will not die with my eyes closed if I do not see an aircraft carrier in front of me.” With the Varyag he could make good on his oath. But he may have to settle for that park near Shanghai. A wager might go either way.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and the managing editor of China Brief.