China's first aircraft carrier, originally the Ukrainian Varyag, set off for its 10th sea trial Monday. The carrier, since its low-profile debut in July 2011, has been followed closely by overseas observers.
Among external interpretations there are largely two tendencies: One sees the carrier as another symbol of China's muscle-stretching strategy and thus hypes the increasing "China threat," whereas the other disparages the Varyag as a "paper tiger" and a carrier "in name only."
Both mentalities demonstrate a certain degree of inadaptability to China's aircraft carrier strategy and misinterpretation of China's intensions. It's hard to tell how long it will take before Western observers can rationally view China's carrier development as a natural, necessary step in the country's military build-up, just as with their own navies.
But one thing is for sure: If China is led by the nose by these miscellaneous commentators and tries to please them, the only choice is probably to totally give up its aircraft carrier development.
The Varyag is widely seen as an important milestone in China's rise. There is nothing to cover in this. China doesn't want to stir up more concerns and worries among its neighbors. This is also why the nation keeps a low-profile and is cautious about publicizing every single move related to its carrier development.
Domestic polls have shown that the majority of Chinese advocate carrier development, and most believe the carrier's major role lies in national defense. At the moment, each sea trial of the Varyag brings China one step closer to its carrier era.
What China does need is political and military deterrence. Carrier development helps China to gain a strategic and political advantage in the increasingly complex regional dynamics. This is a pragmatic choice as the whole of Asia is entering the era of carrier development.
Nevertheless, China has neither the desire nor the strength to engage in a carrier competition with the US or its Asian neighbors like India. China won't initiate a war, bully neighbors with which it has territorial disputes, and claim maritime hegemony. This is a cliched speculation held by those obsessed with the Cold War mentality, no matter how China explains its intentions.
Whether a country poses a threat to the world's peace is related much more to the policy it pursues. China has been seeking more deterrent ability to secure its development environment. Its defensive policy won't change no matter whether it enters the carrier era or not.
It's odd that some countries stay cool when the USS George Washington arrives in their surrounding waters, but raise their arms and cry out when China has its first aircraft carrier.
China needs to be more used to miscellaneous speculations and criticism before external observers can adapt to the nation's progress.