With the publication of a score of photographs of China's new aircraft carrier Shi Lang (nee Varyag) by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, there is a growing expectation that the latest addition to the Chinese surface fleet is about to take to the seas.
Many analysts have gone to great pains to note that the launch of the Chinese carrier (named after a Ming dynasty admiral who conquered Taiwan in the 17th century) will not actually change the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. After all, an aircraft carrier requires not just a functioning air group, itself composed of not only fighters and strike aircraft, but anti-submarine, airborne early warning and in-flight refueling aircraft, but also a variety of escorts to provide additional air, surface and sub-surface protection.
It is therefore confidently predicted that China will not have a functioning aircraft carrier battlegroup for at least several years, and perhaps as much as a decade.
But the impact of the Shi Lang is already being felt, long before the ship embarks its first aircraft. For China's neighbors, the Chinese ability to deploy an aircraft carrier radically changes how the Chinese military, and especially the Chinese Navy, is perceived. The deployment of the Shi Lang, in effect, is a loud declaration that the PLA is now a blue-water force. Consistent with the sustained Chinese naval presence off the Gulf of Aden (now in its eighth rotation) as part of the international anti-piracy patrol, participation in a variety of international peacekeeping measures and the acquisition of several hospital ships, the Chinese military has put the rest of Asia on notice that its forces can and will be found around the world.
This does not mean that the Chinese are about to engage in gun-boat diplomacy in the Western hemisphere, or that they are planning for a 21st century battle of Midway or Jutland. Indeed, it may well be a mistake to assume that China's naval strategists are necessarily interested in naval air power as the means to challenge the U.S. for naval dominance in the western Pacific or to counter Taiwanese interest in independence. China's ballistic missiles, whether aimed at U.S. aircraft carriers or at Taipei, may well be their decisive arm, rather than an aircraft carrier.
But the Shi Lang, as well as China's expanding submarine fleet and other accoutrements of a blue-water Navy, does mean that the Navy can threaten the sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) of China's neighbors. Thus, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea will face the same potential for interference from Chinese naval forces as China faces from the U.S. Navy.
Indeed, many of the neighbors' SLOCs pass through China's exclusive economic zone, making China's large fleet of missile-armed fast attack craft potential factors. These forces are an important reminder of why Taiwan is of strategic concern to China, beyond issues of sovereignty and unification - Chinese control of the island would allow them to project air and maritime power substantially farther into the central Pacific, and to exploit even short-range vessels and aircraft in controlling littoral sea lanes.
It is in this light that Asian states have been adjusting their own military capabilities. Japan, for example, will be shifting air and naval assets southeastward, toward the Nansei islands northeast of Taiwan. Vietnam has purchased new fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles and naval combatants to refurbish its armed forces.
The acquisition of quiet Kilo-class boats is especially noteworthy, given Vietnamese proximity to the SLOCs that pass through the disputed South China Sea. Ultimately, the United States remains the key player in this evolving situation. In the absence of any kind of regional security coalition, only the U.S. has the range of capabilities (including nuclear weapons) sufficient to guard against the prospect of Chinese aggression.
Moreover, given historical regional animosities, only the United States has the range of alliances and relationships that can simultaneously counter China while not exacerbating regional tensions further. Beijing is well aware of the importance of the American role; hence its intense concern with whether the U.S. will rebalance its global forces to favor the Pacific.
In this context, any reduction in American military capabilities and assets is fraught with risk. A fundamental cornerstone of American foreign policy, dating back to John Hay and the "Open Door" policy, has been to prevent any single hegemon from dominating East Asia. And it is far easier to stay in a region than to try to return. In the next decade, the most dangerous conflicts are likely to occur in East, South and Central Asia. Given the economic and technological importance of East Asia as well, it seems clear that America needs to reaffirm its alliance commitments and provide the resources necessary to maintain its credibility in the region.
Just as the Shi Lang is already affecting East Asia's balance of power, how Washington responds to the resulting repercussions will directly influence regional stability for years to come.
Dean Cheng is a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation's Asia Studies Center.