China deletes online reports that it is building a second aircraft carrier


2015-02-02 / the washington post

BEIJING — News that China is building a second aircraft carrier was leaked by an overenthusiastic local government, but reports were subsequently deleted from Web sites and social media here, a development that will do little to calm nerves in neighboring countries about Beijing’s growing maritime power.

The government in Changzhou, in eastern Jiangsu province, boasted Sunday on social media that a local firm had won a contract to supply electrical cabling for the carrier. It later deleted the post, but not before it had been widely circulated. A report in a local newspaper was also withdrawn.

Although China has made no secret of its desire to expand its navy and add to its sole aircraft carrier, the news is a reminder of Beijing’s growing military might and the assertive way it has gone about staking its territorial claims in the East and South China seas in recent years.

In December, a U.S. congressional commission predicted that the Chinese navy would have more military vessels than its American counterpart, warning that “the balance of power and presence” in Asia was shifting in China’s direction.

Although China’s military capabilities lag far behind those of the United States, its defense spending is growing by double-digit percentages annually. Last week, the country’s Defense Ministry spokesman, Col. Yang Yujun, said that military training this year would focus on improving China’s capability to win “local wars.”

An opinion piece in the nationalist Global Times newspaper noted that China, the world’s second-largest economy, trails not only developed countries but also India when it comes to aircraft carriers.

While India has two carriers in operation and one under construction, China has just one — a training ship rebuilt from an old Soviet carrier — wrote the author, Sun Xiaobo, saying that the solitary vessel was “no match to the country’s economic strength.”

“China is entitled to build more aircraft carriers,” he wrote. “In recent years, China has faced Western-backed provocations from neighboring countries over disputes in the East and South China seas, which entails a stronger military deterrence to safeguard its national security.”

China says Japan and the Philippines in particular are being encouraged by the United States to take more assertive stances in their territorial disputes with Beijing.

Last year, the Communist Party secretary of Liaoning province was reported to have said that construction of a second carrier had already begun in the shipyard in Dalian, where the first carrier is based, adding that work would be completed by 2020. The China Digital Times, an organization monitoring online censorship here, said that authorities had ordered all reports of his remarks to be deleted.

The purchase of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, involved a considerable element of subterfuge. A Hong Kong-based businessman and former People’s Liberation Army basketball star, Xu Zengping, bought the ship from Ukraine in 1999 claiming he planned to turn it into a floating casino in Macau. Instead he gave it to Chinese authorities, who refurbished it and eventually put it into service in 2012.

China had been reluctant to purchase the ship in the 1990s because it was trying to repair its international image after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre; instead, naval officials approached Xu to buy it on their behalf, the South China Morning Post reported. But, in an interview published last month, Xu told the paper that China had never repaid him any of the $120 million the ship ended up costing him.

Liu Liu contributed to this report.