China’s Carrier Poses Mostly Symbolic Threat, U.S. Admiral Says

China’s reconstruction of a Soviet- era aircraft carrier, while not a concern to the U.S., is raising alarms in the region as a symbol of the Asian nation’s military expansion, U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard said.

China’s state news agency, Xinhua, posted photos of the carrier, the Varyag, on a website last week, according to the New York Times. In a photo caption, Xinhua cited the military analysis magazine Kanwa Asian Defense Review in Canada as saying the ship will set sail this year, the Times reported. The timeline tracks with an estimate made two years ago by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.

Willard, the top U.S. military commander in the Asia- Pacific region, said he is “not concerned” by the project. The carrier sat pier-side for years as China considered making it a tourist attraction before the reconstruction began, Willard said.

“We do expect that they will achieve what they are asserting, which is that perhaps this year it may go to sea,” Willard, who heads U.S. Pacific Command, said today in an interview at Bloomberg’s Washington bureau. “That’s a long way from developing an aircraft carrier capability.”

Still, China’s overall military expansion magnifies the symbolic effect, Willard told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing earlier in the day.

“Based on the feedback that we received from our partners and allies in the Pacific, I think the change in perception by the region will be significant,” Willard said.

‘Mother Ships’

Chinese leaders have talked for decades of plans to acquire what they call “aircraft mother ships” as part of their military modernization. Such a fleet would expand China’s power in the region and enhance its influence in territorial disputes with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The U.S. expects that China, the world’s second-biggest economy, will try to build its own carrier at some point, Willard said in the interview.

“This is a significant choice that they’re making to develop an aircraft carrier capability,” said Willard, 60, whose command is based in Hawaii and covers 36 nations and about half the earth’s surface. “This is their first refit of a boat to give them the very beginning of that, so we’ll watch over it with interest.”

The refurbished aircraft carrier may serve as a test-and- evaluation platform. There must be “a long period of training and development and eventual exercising preceding any operational capability,” Willard told the committee.

Ballistic Missiles

“There’s a lot that goes into aircraft carrier operations,” Willard said in the interview. “We would expect that at some point in time, they’ll attempt to marry some semblance of an air wing to it.”

The Obama administration has pushed for more openness from China, the biggest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries, over its military intentions, especially as it develops the capacity to restrict U.S. access to sea lanes.

“What we are striving to do is develop a constructive partner in China,” Willard said.

Still, “they have developed a ballistic missile capability” and “most of those missiles are aimed in the direction of Taiwan. That is very formidable,” Willard said.

The missile inventory has the capability to reach allies and “has the region concerned,” he said.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in its 2010 report that China’s non-nuclear missiles have “the capability to attack” and close down five of six major U.S. Air Force bases in South Korea and Japan.

U.S. Bases in Range

China’s improved inventory of short- and medium-range missiles provides a “dramatic increase” in its ability to “inhibit” U.S. military operations in the western Pacific, the commission said.

China’s current force “may be sufficient” to destroy runways, parked aircraft, fuel and maintenance facilities at the Osan and Kunsan air bases in South Korea and the Kadena, Misawa and Yokota bases in Japan, the report said. Those facilities are within 1,100 kilometers (684 miles) of China.

The commission said Congress should evaluate Pentagon spending to fortify bases from Chinese attack, including missile defenses, early warning systems, runway repairs and hardening buildings and hangars.

“Not regarding China as an enemy, my hope is that we would not ever face that kind of a decision” to heavily invest in improving Pacific base survivability, Willard said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net; Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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