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As this purported image of the Moskva goes viral on Telegram, Chinese President Xi Jinping might be fretting over the source of his navy's aircraft carrier technologies. (Nikkei montage/Kyodo/AP)
China up close

Analysis: Xi's confidence in aircraft carriers shaken after Moskva sinking

China's treasured Liaoning was made in Soviet-era Ukraine like the Russian flagship

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He was the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize.

The memoir of a Russian officer on the flagship of Imperial Russia's Baltic Fleet, the Knyaz Suvorov, vividly depicts the end of his warship in the Battle of Tsushima.

Vladimir Semenoff's book, "The Battle of Tsushima," portrays him walking toward the bow of the battleship, only to find the small-caliber turrets completely wiped out.

The battle took place in the Sea of Japan on May 27-28, 1905, helping to draw the Russo-Japanese War to a close. 

Tsushima Island, part of Nagasaki Prefecture, still carries reminders of that battle. A huge relief stands on a hill depicting the wounded commander of the Second Pacific Squadron, Zinovy Rozhdestvensky, being visited by Heihachiro Togo, commander in chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, at a naval hospital in Sasebo.

It was a heartwarming scene. Another famous anecdote passed down through generations is the story of how lifeboats carrying 143 wounded sailors of the Baltic Fleet arrived in Tsushima after the fighting concluded. The sailors were welcomed by the residents of the island, allowed to stay in their houses, and received medical treatment from doctors.

Top to bottom: A monument stands on Tsushima Island, where wounded Russian soldiers landed after an epic battle in 1905. On a hill on the island is a relief that depicts the commander in chief of Japan's Combined Fleet visiting a seriously wounded Russian captain.

Last week's sinking of the Moskva in the Black Sea was the first such loss of a Russian fleet flagship during war since the Knyaz Suvorov. 

Since World War II, there has only been one similar incident. The ARA General Belgrano, an Argentine navy cruiser, sank during the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the U.K.

What is noticeable is that the sinking of the Moskva has had a significant impact on the thinking of Chinese security officials.

The Moskva appears to have sunk after being hit by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, although Russia does not seem too keen to admit it. A high-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Defense concurs to the Ukrainian take.

"If that is true, it means that China's much-vaunted naval power is nothing but a paper tiger," a Chinese source lamented.

Why the unease? History intertwines in mysterious ways. 

In 2005, 100 years after the sinking of the Knyaz Suvorov, news broke that China's first aircraft carrier was being prepared at a shipyard in Dalian, Liaoning Province.

The Chinese had bought the remnants of the aircraft carrier Varyag, whose construction had begun in 1985 but had stalled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

This vessel is purported to be the Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.    © Kyodo

The Varyag was built at the well-known Black Sea Shipyard in Mykolaiv, south Ukraine. Coincidentally, the Moskva was also built at a shipyard in Mykolaiv.

The Ukrainians stripped the Varyag of various pieces of equipment and sold it as scrap to a dummy company linked to the Chinese military. It was towed to Dalian and renovated, and now serves as the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.

Dalian has some history with Russia. After leasing the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula during the Qing dynasty, Russia named the poor village "Dal'nii," which means "far away" in Russian.

China purchased two other former Soviet aircraft carriers, the Kiev and the Minsk, for research purposes. The Kiev, like the Varyag, was built in Mykolaiv before eventually taking up residence at an amusement park in Tianjin, China.

When this reporter visited the Kiev several years back, the vessel gave the impression that it was a relatively small and outdated light aircraft carrier mainly used to carry helicopters.

The Kiev was built in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, before taking up residence at an amusement park in Tianjin, China.

According to people in the know, China was able to reverse-engineer much of the former Soviet aircraft carriers and, over time, improve its own related technologies -- despite previously having no experience with them.

But if the armor of the Varyag is based on former Soviet standards, the sinking of the Moskva will only make Chinese leaders fret over its vulnerability to incoming advanced missiles.

Since its commissioning in 2012, the Liaoning has been considered one of the Chinese navy's key assets. It often sails near Taiwan, including through the Taiwan Strait.

But following the war in Ukraine, if Chinese President Xi Jinping, chairman of the Central Military Commission, decides to use force against Taiwan, the Liaoning could be seen as too vulnerable to deploy.

Perhaps China's second carrier, the Shandong -- the first to be domestically produced -- has better defenses. China's third aircraft carrier remains under construction but is said to be close to being launched.

The Liaoning departs Hong Kong on July 11, 2017. The aircraft carrier's missile defenses are, like the Moskva's, based on Soviet standards.   © Reuters

Yet, if Chinese aircraft carriers were to sail near Taiwan or try to enter the Pacific, they would come within striking distance of anti-ship missiles. 

China, which has not ruled out the possibility of unifying with Taiwan by force, must be shocked by the weakness of Russian forces. Russia should be overwhelming Ukraine's defenses in all aspects, Beijing thought, as it enjoys superior equipment, troop numbers and funds.

If he decides to use force against Taiwan, Xi could make the same mistake the overly optimistic Russian President Vladimir Putin made with regard to Ukraine. Xi's target would be more difficult to obtain in that it lies across a sea.

In addition, Taiwan, with its many steep and high mountains, is something of a natural fortress, at least in the central part of the island. If China fails to quickly win the initial battles, reinforcements from the U.S. military and other nations would arrive.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk in Beijing on Feb. 4. Putin's war on Ukraine might be teaching Xi a lesson on the dangers of being overly optimistic.   © Kremlin/AP

Western nations would impose tough sanctions against China and possibly a naval blockade. The world's most populous nation, reliant as it is on other countries for energy and food, would suffer an incomparably more serious blow than what Russia is experiencing now.

China has relied on various former Soviet military technologies. When the Russians would refuse to sell, China sometimes obtained the weapons anyway from Ukraine.

China is said to have successfully developed its Shenyang J-15 fighter jet after acquiring technology related to carrier-based aircraft from a prototype of the Soviet-developed Sukhoi Su-33 owned by Ukraine.

The tense relations between Russia and Ukraine are somewhat similar to those between China and Taiwan. The final outcome of the raging war in Ukraine could spill over into the Taiwan Strait.

The shocking sinking of the Moskva, which came 117 years after the Battle of Tsushima, will inevitably impact how the tensions between China and Taiwan are resolved.

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