HMS Ark Royal: Floating PRC 'Disco of Doom'?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 7/23/2011 07:16:00 AM
When at anchor here I ride, my bosom swells with pride,
And I snap my fingers at a foeman's taunts--
And so do his sisters and his cousins and his aunts!

They say the truth is stranger than fiction, and I surely couldn't have made up a dafter story: "China buying the [decommissioned] Ark Royal" is the punch line to "What do you get when you cross eBay [sic], HMS Pinafore and Blood On the Dance Floor? Unusual, I know, but do read on for another bit of geopolitical machinations purportedly involving the Chinese.

It is not a big secret that the Chinese are keen on upgrading their military capabilities--though the same can probably said of every nation, budget permitting. It is the latter proviso that sets China apart in many respects. Alike the US, the UK is undergoing a process of military retrenchment brought forth by plain old overstretch. HMS Ark Royal is a vessel whose name conveys its importance to what remains of the days when Britannia ruled the waves. Still, it had a fleeting moment of strange glory shortly after being decommissioned to great fanfare. Early last year, the aircraft carrier was famously sent to the shores of continental Europe to bring home Britons stranded for days on end by the Icelandic volcano eruption that resulted in mass flight cancellations on the continent.

Anyway, HM Royal Navy has been flogging the Ark Royal on its--get this--Edisposals website ever since it sailed into the British fiscal sunset. Stripped of its military hardware and assumably ready to be retrofitted with civilian niceties, it has been billed for conversion into a pleasure boat. It is here where the Chinese come in. You see, some dodgy characters have placed bids for the vessel, once more arousing suspicion that, actually the PLA is involved. Ostensibly this bid is for converting the vessel into Old Man River-style duty, but suspicions remain:
As it sells off its flagship aircraft carriers over a government website, Britain is finding enthusiastic interest from an unexpected group -- Chinese businessmen potentially keen enough to outbid any other rivals. But some Western strategists suspect the real agenda might be more to do with Beijing's growing naval ambitions, that they might be stripped for construction secrets or simply pressed into the service of the People's Liberation Army Navy.

The Royal Navy decommissioned HMS Invincible and her sistership Ark Royal as part of a wider round of austerity measures, listing them for disposal alongside unused printer cartridges, old office furniture and outdated uniforms. Both ships attracted immediate interest from buyers wanting to sail them to China to be used as floating commercial venues.

Whilst some foreign warships purchased by Chinese businesses have genuinely been used as leisure centers and night clubs, others are believed to have entered military hands. Such worries may have already helped scotch one potential UK carrier purchase and could stymie another. "It is very difficult to gauge what is going on here," said James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of Jane's Defense Weekly. "The links between Chinese businessmen and the Communist Party are always somewhat ambiguous.

"The Chinese have a reputation for playing a long game, as well as for reverse engineering ... It is (also) possible that they could (aim to) refit Ark Royal as a helicopter carrier. Such a ship would certainly be a useful vessel in terms of power projection in the South China Sea and possibly against Taiwan."
As it turns out, the Chinese military has already used this ruse of purchasing a military vessel for ostensibly civilian purposes only to use it as an aircraft carrier. No wine, women and song here I'm afraid; only armaments:
China's Defense Ministry declined to comment, while the buyers have been keen to stress their independence from government. But experts say China has prior form. Its first aircraft carrier, due to start sea trials in the coming weeks, started life as the Varyag, an unfinished Soviet warship lying in Ukraine. Chinese buyers bought her in the late 1990s, ostensibly to be used as a casino in Macau.

In reality, she spent years being refitted in naval dockyards and some suspect a similar fate could be in line for any purchased British ships. Not only might a sale breach a de facto European arms embargo on China, it might also raise eyebrows in Washington DC and irritate other Asian powers already worried by Beijing's naval growth.
Alike the Japanese in the 70s and 80s, the point of the exercise may be reverse engineering: while the military paraphernalia may have been removed, clues on designing a war vessel remain valuable:
"The casino/entertainment center ploy is something offered by the Chinese since ... the 1980s," said Bud Cole, a former U.S. naval officer now lecturing at the National War College in Washington DC, pointing to the purchase of former Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, several Russian vessels and the Varyag. "All were surveyed by Chinese ship builders and designers as fodder for an eventual Chinese-designed carrier ... I would expect the same for the ex-Brit carriers. I personally don't think they should sell..."

But even if the Chinese buyers were being honest in their ultimate intentions of the ships, most intelligence and security experts said they would expect the ships to be given a thorough going over first by China's military.

"There is some merit in acquiring Ark Royal, a successful design, if you want to build your own carriers and only have a badly designed and frankly clapped out vessel like the Varyag to go on," said a London-based naval analyst, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. "There are limits to its value: all the sensitive kit such as sonar, radar and communications will be taken off. What you would do is get an insight into naval construction techniques."
Which brings us to the shady characters expressing interest in buying the Ark Royal:
Earlier this month, Hong Kong-based investment firm Eagle Vantage Asset Management told Reuters it has put in an offer to buy Ark Royal to turn it into a floating showground. Eagle Vantage, owned by tycoon Huang Guangyu who was jailed for 14 years in China on bribery and insider dealing charges, would not discuss what price it had offered. A spokesman said the company was wholly independent of China's government and that Guangyu himself was not directly involved in the deal.

An MoD spokesman said money alone might not be not enough. The offer period for Ark Royal had now closed, he said, and a decision would likely be reached in September. Assorted other schemes for the ship's use have been floated in the British media, including mooring her in London Docklands for use as a commercial helipad for the 2012 Olympics and after.

"Obviously, the amount of money involved is an important issue," said the MoD spokesman, asking to remain unnamed in accordance with government policy. "But we also look at the business plan for what will be done with the ship once it is sold."
Just as unusually heavy US Treasury purchases out of the UK in recent years is indicative of the PRC using London to conceal the magnitude of its purchases of American assets, so too may it use a "civilian purposes" ploy to acquire military knowledge forbidden by Western countries. Blood on the dance floor it is, then, as unseemly figures polish up the handle of the big front door.