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Members of the Chinese Navy honour guard wait for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his visit to Beijing this week. (Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images/Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images)
Members of the Chinese Navy honour guard wait for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his visit to Beijing this week. (Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images/Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images)

China's naval coming-of-age Add to ...

When the Soviet Union began building the aircraft carrier Varyag more than a quarter of a century ago, the 300-metre ship was expected to one day sail provocatively into the Mediterranean Sea, a Cold War challenge to American naval dominance in that part of the globe.

When it finally sets to sea under its own power some time this year or next, the Varyag will have a very different master and mission. Today, the construction project that began in 1985 in what is now the Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv is being completed in the Chinese hub of Dalian.

A world and an era away from its original intended purpose, the Varyag will instead feed fears and suspicions between the United States and China, its latest military rival.

The Varyag is far from the pinnacle of China's naval ambitions. In fact, it's not clear that the ship will ever be anything but a floating test runway for the pilots and planes that will eventually be transferred to a larger and indigenously developed aircraft carrier that China hints could be mission-ready by 2015. As many as six aircraft carriers are believed to be either planned or under construction by the People's Liberation Army Navy.

The status of the Varyag (a Cold War relic that once appeared fated to become a floating casino in Macao) is now of major concern in Washington, and among neighbours such as Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam. This fact speaks to a lingering truth about international relations: Even in a world of satellite weaponry and cyberwars, naval power remains as relevant in 2011 as it was in centuries past.

Despite all the advances in diplomacy, communications and military hardware, the way a superpower expresses its displeasure hasn't changed much since 1841, when an iron-sided British warship appropriately named the Nemesis sailed up the Yangtze River during the First Opium War, helping force the Chinese to cede Hong Kong Island to Queen Victoria's empire.

Gunboats still matter. Part of it is national pride, with aircraft carriers – the successor to the man-of-wars, ironclads and battleships of centuries past – bestowing an aura of power. But in a globalized era, where key resources and export markets are often halfway around the world, they are also vital to securing trade routes. And in disputes between nations, there remain few more effective methods of backing up an argument.

Take the recent flare-up of tensions of the Korean Peninsula. After North Korean artillery shelled a South Korean island late last year, the U.S. demanded that China rein in its ally. When Beijing didn't act, the U.S. dispatched one of its 11 aircraft carriers – the 98,000-tonne USS George Washington – to the Yellow Sea, carrying out joint exercises with the South Korean navy that were not only close to the disputed sea border with the North, but on the edge of waters that China considers within its exclusive economic zone.

America sends in the big guns

As that crisis simmers on – and with tensions between Beijing and Washington still on the rise – the U.S. is stepping up its gunboat diplomacy, simultaneously deploying three carrier battle groups (each of which also consists of a guided-missile cruiser, destroyers and smaller craft, plus a standard complement of 90 warplanes) in the western Pacific Ocean for the first time since shortly after the end of the Second World War.

The U.S. has also in recent years transferred most of its nuclear-powered submarine fleet to the Pacific, a shift driven in large part by China's efforts to upgrade and expand its naval capability. “I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned,” Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year of China's military modernizations.

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