On June 25, China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, departed Qingdao, the largest city in the Shandong Province and an important naval base on the Yellow Sea, for a training mission. The carrier is accompanied by the destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan, the frigate Yantai, and a squadron of J-15 fighter jets and helicopters. This voyage is important for two reasons: the route that the carrier group will take on its trip to the South China Sea and its scheduled port call in Hong Kong. The Liaoning’s travels have made headlines over the past several months because as China’s first—and currently only—carrier its location points to areas where China wants to project its military, especially its naval, power.
THE LIAONING: STRANGER THAN FICTION
As China’s first aircraft, the Liaoning has rightfully received much attention from the international community. The story behind China’s acquisition of the carrier shows how secretive the Chinese are about military matters. In 1998, the Chinese sent former basketball star Xu Zengping to covertly acquire the Soviet-built carrier in the Ukraine. By setting up a shell company and promising to use the carrier as a casino, Xu managed to buy it, and the ship’s blueprints, for USD 20 million after receiving personal loans. The Chinese government had not even guaranteed Xu that it would buy the carrier from him because at the time, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) did not have the funds to purchase the carrier. “I was chosen to do the deal. I realised it was a mission impossible because buying something like a carrier should be a national commitment, not one by a company or an individual,” Xu said. “But my passion pushed me to take on the mission because it was a now-or-never chance for China to buy a new carrier from a nearly insolvent state-owned Ukrainian shipbuilder.”
In order to make the deal less conspicuous, the Chinese government planted information that the carrier’s four engines were removed before the sale. That information was false; the engines were in pristine condition, and one of them alone was worth what Xu paid for the entire carrier. The carrier did not arrive in China until 2002 after being towed 15,200-nautical-miles. Then, for the next decade, Xu’s company revamped all of the ship’s system and its hull before turning it over to the government in 2012. In September of the same year, the newly named Liaoning was commissioned as a training ship in the PLAN. In November 2016, it was characterized as “combat ready” by a Chinese official, and in December 2016, the Liaoning participated in its first-ever live-fire drill.