In Dalian, Liaoning province, on the morning of Sept. 25, a sense of tension hung over this usually sleepy port town.
A christening ceremony for the commissioning of the 67,000-ton, former Soviet military-made aircraft carrier Varyag was scheduled that day in the Port of Dalian in the city’s center. The vessel had been retrofitted there.
I attached a telephoto lens to my camera to shoot photos from a room of a high-rise building some distance away, as the entire port area, designated a controlled military zone, was off-limits.
Although it was foggy, I could faintly see a Chinese flag and seats for dignitaries set up on the deck of the vessel. Several hundred police officers, encircling the port, were on alert.
Arterial roads were blocked off throughout most of the city, and the airport was temporarily shut down, under tight security, at an unprecedented level.
A state-run TV news show in the evening gave me the reason, reporting that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had attended the ceremony. It is extremely rare for both leaders to make a regional tour together.
Halting flights by temporarily closing the airport was due to the fear of terrorism, a local government official explained.
During the ceremony, Wen declared that the aircraft carrier “is of immense significance in reinforcing our national defense capabilities and comprehensive national strength and inspiring patriotism.”
Wen, along with Hu, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, the highest position in the military, made the rounds on the deck of the vessel, which was newly christened the Liaoning.
In 1998, a Macao tourism company purchased the ship, which had been about 70 percent completed during the Soviet era. Since 2002, a Dalian shipbuilder that has close ties to the military had been retrofitting it. After its completion in summer last year, the ship made a number of sea trials.
Work related to the vessel has proceeded almost as planned, despite some disruptions, including a delay in the development of the aircraft to be carried aboard.
But one thing differed from the original plan.
Originally, the aircraft carrier was to be assigned to the South Sea Fleet, headquartered in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province. The fleet is responsible for the South China Sea, where the country has territorial disputes with other nations, such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
I heard experts and military officials explain many times that the carrier would not be a threat to Japan.
But only recently, there was a change in deployment to the North Sea Fleet, headquartered in Qingdao, Shandong province, which is over the Northeast Asian region, including Japan.
Col. Li Daguang, a professor at China's National Defense University, explained to The Asahi Shimbun that one reason was the confrontation with Japan in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands.
“There is no doubt that (the deployment) is trying to intimidate Japan, with which (China) has the most serious territorial dispute,” he said.
But I cannot think that it is just intimidation, given the recent large-scale, long-term activities by Chinese patrol ships in waters around the Senkakus. Since the Japanese government put some of the islands into state ownership, in particular, China has stepped up its presence by increasing the number of ships in the area from two to around 10.
And there is something occurring that has never been seen before. Fisheries patrol vessels under the Agriculture Ministry and the State Oceanic Administration’s research ships are working together, unlike their previous separate operations.
The main force of Chinese patrol ships near the Senkakus had been of the 1,000-ton class. Most were aging vessels, such as the ones handed down from the Chinese Navy. The Japan Coast Guard was able to chase these vessels from Japanese waters, certainly because Japanese ships were superior to the Chinese craft in both size and speed.
But in recent years, China has been introducing new 3,000- to 4,000-ton class ships capable of carrying helicopters. It plans to double the number by 2020.
Now concerns are being raised from the Japanese side, with a government official saying, “Japan would not be able to compete (with China), resulting in putting its effective control (of the Senkakus) in danger.”
What’s more, if the aircraft carrier, with more than 20 times the displacement of those new ships, is dispatched to waters near the Senkakus, its presence could put huge pressure on Japan.
It will still take much time for the Liaoning to go into practical service. For the vessel to become ready for integrated operations with submarines and destroyers, “it will take at least 10 years,” Chinese Navy Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo said. In addition, the Liaoning is no match for its U.S. counterparts in both size and technology.
But China is building two aircraft carriers on its own. The Liaoning is just a training vessel for the two to come.
When I wrote an article on the aircraft carrier construction plans in December 2008, multiple Japanese government officials told me that the nation could never build an aircraft carrier.
Despite those beliefs, China formed basic plans for the carrier vessels in the 1980s, and it has steadily been achieving these goals, which are measured in terms of decades. The country is surely aiming at operating full-fledged aircraft carrier groups.
Those Chinese efforts differ greatly from those of Japan's government, which is busy coping with China’s response to its purchase of the Senkakus. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda described the Chinese reaction as “beyond expectations.”
It’s not easy for Japan to expand its defense capabilities in a rivalry with China, as Japan has a stagnated economy and limited public finances. It is faced with the need to revise its strategy for maintaining effective control of the Senkakus by making good use of international bodies and law as well as diplomatic negotiations.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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