Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ex-Varyag Begins Sea Trials

Early this morning the Ex-Varyag was assisted by several tug boats as the ship ventured out on sea trials. Several of the early reports in Chinese news were short and to the point, but it didn't take long before this English language article appeared with a big picture to punctuate the political perspective.

Today China has taken the next step in what is a very long road towards the operation of an aircraft carrier. This specific step is both strategic and symbolic. On one hand the sea trials of the ex-Varyag marks another domestic political benchmark intended to provide evidence to the Chinese people of the ongoing ascension of Chinese power, another step on the stairway of progress and achievement. On the other hand this is a strategic step communicating to the world that the PLA Navy presence on the global oceans is an inevitable conclusion.

The aircraft carrier itself will unlikely ever be used as a significant military capability, rather the next step towards the development of what the Chinese believe to be the single most evident strategic military capability of world powers. We should expect China to highlight every step of their aircraft carrier development leveraging their development as a strategic communication tool intended to both inspire domestic audiences regarding Chinese achievements and influence foreign audiences in their strategic calculations. In many ways the ex-Varyag is evidence of the unmistakable strategic influence that seapower is capable of during peacetime.

The Chinese believe the United States is in a perpetual decline that cannot be prevented, while they themselves are in a perpetual ascension that cannot be impeded. In following some of the political messaging of the Chinese this morning, I found it interesting how the Chinese juxtapose the sea trials of their nations first aircraft carrier as a positive benchmark of ascension against the backdrop of the downgrade of the US credit rating - a negative benchmark suggesting US decline. The Chinese intentionally frame their narrative in a way so that the rise of their national seapower is perceived as part of a larger system of broad Chinese advancement, not unlike the way the US looked upon sea and space achievements before the end of the cold war.

I find the contrast in outlook stark in comparison. As the Chinese set near term, small goals at the political level and strive to meet those goals, the intention is to continuously inspire their population with advancement through otherwise insignificant small steps. They basically apply very simple political visions forwarded with reasonable expectations for scientific achievement that reinforces national confidence when those stated goals are achieved. Their current model of modest steps that allows for maximum political benefit in an information age is good governance 101.

In the US today our political leaders do not outline national goals that inspire confidence in our political leadership, in our people, or in our countries future. Indeed, the goals set forward by our political leaders are more spiritual than scientific, because none of them have a vision for process or achievement that can be articulated.

Defeating al Qaeda? Protecting people from terror? Rescue our economy? Win a war in Afghanistan? Build more roads and bridges? Provide affordable health care? Provide greater affordability and access to education?

We not only don't know how to do these things absent unlimited resources, we can't even describe what the end state of these political objectives in an inspirational way. None of these goals represent a vision towards scientific achievement with a positive view that inspires American society or economy, because if they did - they wouldn't be divisive political issues frequently dominating our national politics. Since the end of the cold war I fear our nation has been so void of genuine political leadership that young Americans do not even know what it is anymore, and many in my generation are likely so cynical we may not even recognize it if we saw it.

So I find myself observing the sea trials of the ex-Varyag as little more than one more minor achievement in what will be a long road for Chinese seapower; a largely insignificant event that will be one of many firsts during the development of aircraft carrier capabilities by China. With that said, and despite this being little more than an insignificant event from a big picture perspective, the sea trials for ex-Varyag is also an enormous symbolic benchmark that truly does reflect the ascension of China juxtaposed against the decline of America. I don't believe there is inevitability in Chinese ascension nor inevitability of American decline, rather I simply note the Chinese currently have political leadership with a legitimate vision of a better future and they are committed to motivating their people to achieve that vision. We currently lack that leadership with a positive vision, and we currently lack the motivation necessary to achieve a positive national object.

For a different kind of analysis of ex-Varyag, I encourage people to read Andrew Erickson's post on this topic. I'm also fairly sure Feng will eventually weigh in with his own thoughts as time allows.

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