China's announcement that its first aircraft carrier is ready to set sail as early as the end of this month has refocused attention on the country's naval ambitions. So, too, has the Pakistani defense minister's disclosure that his country recently asked China to start building a naval base at its strategically positioned port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea.
Both revelations underscore China's preference for strategic subterfuge.
After it bought the 67,500-ton, Soviet-era Varyag carrier--still little more than a hull when the Soviet Union collapsed China repeatedly denied that it had any intention to refit it for naval deployment. For example, Zhang Guangqin, Deputy Director of the Chinese State Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, said in 2005 that the Varyag was not being modified for military use. However, work to refit the carder had already begun in Dalian, China's main shipyard.
In order to deflect attention from the real plan, the state-run media reported plans to turn the Varyag into a "floating casino" near Macau. And, to lend credence to that claim, the two smaller Soviet-era aircraft carriers that were purchased with the Varyag in 1998-2000 were developed into floating museums.
The first official acknowledgement that China was turning the Varyag into a fully refurbished, deployable aircraft carrier came this month, just when it was almost ready to set sail. And the acknowledgement came from General Chen Bingde, the chief of the People's Liberation Army, in an interview with Global Times, the Communist Party's hawkish mouthpiece.
Subterfuge is also apparent in China's plans at Gwadar, where a Chinese-built but still-underused commercial port opened in 2007. From the time construction of the port began, Gwadar was widely seen as representing China's first strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea, as part of its strategy to assemble a "string of pearls" along the Indian Ocean rim. It was known that Gwadar, which overlooks Gulf shipping lanes and is near the Iran border, would eventually double as a naval base. Yet all along, China continued to insist that Gwadar's only role was commercial.
Not surprisingly, then, Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar's public comments about a naval base at Gwadar deeply embarrassed China's government. At the end of a recent visit to Beijing with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Mukhtar reported that the Chinese government was more...