Please Read This Article About the Chinese Navy

David Axe, of Wired's Danger Room site, has a new article up with a deliberately overstated headline: "Relax: China's First Aircraft Carrier is a Piece of Junk." It's really worth reading and largely self-explanatory, but let me dare offer a reader's guide to how to take this kind of debunking piece. (Wired photo below of China's first carrier, a rehabbed model purchased 13 years ago from a shipyard in the Ukraine.)

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For lo these many years, I have been arguing that the rest of the world should allow a lot of brain space for China. We should do so because events there are so interesting; because they've already made such a difference within China and elsewhere; because they hold such potential significance for the world's economic, environmental, cultural, and strategic future; and because the stakes are extremely high. If things go "relatively well" between China and other countries, starting with the US, we'll all be better off -- environmentally, militarily, culturally, etc -- than if they don't. And, it's worth saying again, things there are just so very interesting.

But paying attention to China, and taking it seriously, are different from being pie-eyed, gape-mouthed, and otherwise credulous about the overall nature of China's success. I'm not suggesting that people should be "hostile" to China, though there are aspects of its policy that need to be criticized every day. I'm talking about applying a common-sense BS-detector when you hear the next claim about how rapid, inevitable, trouble-free, and strategically-perfect the Chinese ascent will be. You could think of what I'm worried about as the "Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony" syndrome, or the "I just rode the bullet train to Tianjin, and holy shit, we're doomed!" approach. Lots of things work in China. Lots of things don't. We understand that kind of balance immediately when it comes to America -- it's a huge success, with huge failures. China is a similar woolly package, with the difference that it's still full of hundreds of millions of poor people, and is in the middle of environmental catastrophes that dwarf the local challenges in Europe or North America. (The drought in much of China right now threatens to assume Dust Bowl proportions, as Edward Wong of the NYT, among others, is pointing out.)

So too with the military. China's military spending is rising very fast, as we always hear. But the starting point is much lower than accounts in the U.S. generally mention. That's the virtue of this Danger Room article. Yes, the PLA Navy is about to launch its very first aircraft carrier. It will hit the seas some 90 years after the U.S. launched its first aircraft carrier -- the USS Langley, which was commissioned in 1922. As anyone in any navy will tell you, simply having a ship is only the beginning to effective carrier operations.

So read the article, please. And don't read it as belittling China's progress but rather in giving a realistic perspective toward the golden mean of taking China seriously without being afraid of it.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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