This week has proven to be a historic one in Chinese naval affairs. On Tuesday, the Chinese Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Although still lacking a naval air wing capable of operating from the carrier, the Chinese Navy has joined the exclusive club of nations which operate aircraft carriers and set itself on a path to developing the skills requisite to its efficient operation. In addition, crowds in Shanghai welcomed home the ice breaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) as it completed a historic 18,500 mile scientific voyage and became the first Chinese ship to sail through the Northern Sea Route.
Manned by 119 scientists and crew, Xue Long departed Qingdao (best known for its Tsingtao beer, a relic of its Imperial German colonial past) on July 2nd. During her 3 month voyage, the Xue Long and her crew conducted various geophysical surveys and installed an automatic meteorological station. The ship also stopped over in Iceland to collaborate with scientists there and to perform joint oceanic surveys.
These two events further mark the strides China has made towards projecting its power on a global scale. Not since Admiral Zheng He’s 15th century sailing expeditions has China reached this far afield. A final event this week which could either end up a small footnote in diplomatic history or the catalyst to an Asian conflagration was the cruising of Chinese maritime surveillance cutters and naval frigates to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Long a subject of dispute between China and Japan and to a lesser extent Taiwan, Japan purchased the islands earlier this month from a private party. The presence of large oil reserves in the waters around the islands make them, like the Falklands, quite valuable economically. It remains to be seen whether the dispute is simply kicked down the road, spurs Japan to acquire a nuclear deterrent or erupts in limited to full scale conflict.