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China Launches Its First Aircraft Carrier


China has just joined an exclusive, global club. They have launched their first aircraft carrier. The Liaoning is a Soviet ship that the Russian navy never actually put into service. To talk with us about the significance of this ship, we're joined from London by naval historian and defense analyst, Paul Beaver.

Mr. Beaver, good morning.

PAUL BEAVER: Good morning to you.

GREENE: So tell us about this ship.

BEAVER: Well, it's very interesting. The Chinese said back in 1993, when the Central Military Commission met about the modernization of China's armed forces, that they would have a training carrier, as they called it, by 2012. And they've done that. They went to the Ukrainians, who, in the breakup of the Soviet Union, had a number of ships in the Black Sea fleet, and they bought the old Varyag, which had never gone into service.

Originally, it was going to be bought to be a casino in Macau, but I don't think any of us believed that you'd want to have a casino with a flat top on it. So what the Chinese have done is modernized it, put new engines in, and they're going to use it for training their seamen in big ships. They don't have big ships in their navy. So this is all about learning how to do replenishment at sea, working with escorts, understanding how a big ship works.

I don't think they're ever going to actually put operational airplanes on it, but it is a signal to everybody that China is modernizing and wants to be in the big league.

GREENE: Okay. So, no planes, so far. Just training. Is this an important signal, though?

BEAVER: It is an important signal. They've been training their pilots on shore using dummy decks. We see the signs of what they're doing there, and they've got five or six different plans that all will come together towards the end of this decade when they'll have an operational capability.

GREENE: Should countries like the United States and others feel like this is something to worry about, a signal of eventual Chinese military might?

BEAVER: So I see this as a signal of Chinese power projection. So the Chinese have got a number of territorial disputes, the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. They're saying to Vietnam, to Malaysia, to Brunei, to the Philippines, guys, you know, we've got a capability, and just so you're aware, it's a capability that one day will match the Americans. So don't expect the Americans to come over the horizon with their carrier task group and we'll run away, because we've got that capability.

So I see this as being - as always, the Chinese thinks(ph), it's on many levels. There's power projection on the top level. There's a known need to improve the capability of the Chinese armed forces. And then there's the technical things. Their shipyards can build these ships. They can do the refits. They will have learned a lot about shipbuilding from this, and they will build another carrier which will be better than this one, and that's the way that the Chinese work.

So signals are being sent on a huge scale. And after all, President Obama has said that America is going to rebalance its Asia Pacific posture. This will give whoever is president of the United States next year a real incentive to do that.

GREENE: Paul, thanks so much for talking to us.

BEAVER: Great pleasure.

GREENE: Paul Beaver is an author and naval historian. He joined us from London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.