Please Read This Article About the Chinese Navy

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/06/please-read-this-article-about-the-chinese-navy/239865/