As China’s maiden aircraft carrier nears its sea trials one question that evades analysts’ minds is why China is building a carrier. For many of the carrier’s potential missions: from “recovering” Taiwan; to “solving” the Paracel, Spratly and Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands disputes; to “safeguarding” China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), a fully operational carrier is considered logistically unattainable, at least in the near term. While several of the above missions may figure into a long-term strategic calculus, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) must first undergo an extensive period of trials, testing and training before the ship is mission-ready to the extent that it will be useful for China’s most vexing regional and international flashpoints. Yet, the meaning the Chinese officials, experts, press and even everyday Chinese people assign to an aircraft carrier seems to imply otherwise.
Major General Luo Yuan states: “for China to own a carrier is normal…an aircraft carrier is a symbol of the power of a great nation” (Xilu.com, March 4). The carrier is described by PLA Air Force Colonel Dai Xu as “a silent deterrent (wusheng weishe) against hegemonism” and a “totem [tuteng]” (Xinhua News Agency, June 2, 2010). Chinese commentators have touted the acquisition and refitting of the carrier as a “turning point” (zhuanzhe dian) (News.yard.cc). Citing the United States’ use of an aircraft carrier to face successive post-World War II crises, an article from the official Xinhua News Agency states that an aircraft carrier is the embodiment of a kind of “discourse power” (huayuquan) (Xinhua News Agency, July 29, 2010). In describing “discourse power,” the article says, “an aircraft carrier is the barometer of international relations in East Asia. When a carrier’s presence is unknown, Asia has ‘boundless blues skies’; yet when it is known, it becomes ‘rainy.’ But everyone acknowledges that the aircraft carrier is a manifestation of ‘discourse power.’ As in the United States’ experiences in various post-war international crises, American hegemony is inseparably linked to the aircraft carrier” (Xinhua News Agency, July 29, 2010). Another article in the popular Chinese Communist Party (CCP) weekly Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao) is titled “Reality and experience demonstrate that it is hard to be a great nation without an aircraft carrier” (shishi yu jingyan biaoming mei hangmu nancheng daguo) (Huanqiu Shibao, December 3, 2010). The majority of readers’ comments about articles on the buildup of an aircraft carrier seem to fully endorse the idea. One Global Times reader wrote: “I wish the mother country could have her own carrier soon!” Another reader went so far as to say: “I can endure being poor, but I cannot endure that China does not have an aircraft carrier” .
Background of the Maiden Carrier
The Nationalist (Kuomintang) government under Chiang Kai-shek had carriers as part of its navy development plan in the 1940s. In fact, as early as in 1928, a plan for building carriers at the cost of 20 million yuan was suggested to Generalissimo Chiang . Commander of the PLAN from 1982 to 1987 and Chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1989 to 1997, Admiral Liu Huaqing, considered the father of the modern PLAN, advocated the acquisition of aircraft carriers starting in the 1980s as part of his vision of transforming the PLA Navy into a blue-water navy (People.com.cn, January 23). Since that time, the development of a carrier has been stymied by official retirements such as Liu’s in 1997, and a slew of technological challenges including acquiring and developing highly advanced electronic warfare and radar systems. Even getting the carrier from Ukraine to China proved tricky (it was held up near Turkey’s Bosporus Strait for 15 months). As You Ji and Ian Storey point out, Soviet influence in terms of “operational doctrine, campaign theory, and combat tactics” have also hindered the PLAN’s transition to blue-water capability .
However, a new generation of doctrine seeks to increase China’s joint-operations capabilities (Xinhua News Agency, March 31). China’s 2010 Ocean Development Report implies that China intended to build a carrier at least since 2003. “[The] Nationwide Maritime Economic Development Plan, issued by the State Council in 2003, clearly suggested a strategic goal of creating a powerful maritime nation. China’s maritime industry is standing at a new starting point in history…in 2009 China suggested a tentative plan and a program of building an aircraft carrier” . All the while, various pronouncements have implied a possible carrier. In late 2008, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman described aircraft carriers as “a reflection of a nation’s comprehensive power” (The New York Times, December 23, 2008). On a two day visit to Beijing in March 2009, Chinese Minister of Defense General Liang Guanglie told Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada that China would not remain the only major power without an aircraft carrier (Asia Pacific News, March 23, 2009). Examining the usefulness and challenges involved in different possible missions of the carrier will help to clarify what the carrier will actually be able to accomplish.
As Regional Navies Build, Joint Operations a Continuing Challenge
Some major Chinese news sources say “the carrier is a key link in China’s ability to fight and win a local war under informationized conditions” (Nanfang Daily, April 8). The Taiwan Strait, the Paracel and Spratly Islands, as well as the Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands disputes present three possible local flashpoints that may see the use of a carrier.
Broadly speaking, for a Taiwan Strait scenario, Western analysts have pointed out that a carrier “would have little role in a near-term Taiwan scenario … as land based PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Naval Aviation aircraft could probably handle all of the required air operations across the narrow Taiwan Strait” . The introduction of modern precision weaponry further obviates the need for an aircraft carrier force in the Taiwan Strait scenario . Yet, other analysts have pointed out that “a carrier force operating east of Taiwan could attack the island’s air defense forces on two fronts if the PLA were able to coordinate carrier-based attacks with shore-based attacks from the mainland” . That may be true. Nevertheless, in order for this to happen, joint-operations capabilities are a prerequisite, which are unattainable in the near term.
For the Paracel Islands (claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan) and the Spratly Islands (claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei), a carrier “will provide China with sustainable air cover for the long-range power projection needed to seize and hold disputed territory” . Yet, carrying out these missions is largely dependent on air power at sea. Pilots will have to initially undergo a prolonged period of training before they can take off and land with any confidence. Even then, repairs due to the wear and tear on day-to-day carrier operations, the ship and its air-wing, present a whole new set of challenges that will likely take years to iron out.
Naval experts note that in order for China’s carrier to present any formidable challenge, it must integrate a battle-group, which customarily includes at least one frigate, one destroyer, a supply ship, and submarine support. The lack of qualified personnel, the foundation of a fully-functional battle-group, has been acknowledged by the PLAN as a priority that needs to be reformed (See “PLA Navy Expands Recruitment Drive to Enhance Operational Capability,” China Brief, May 20). A carrier without a well-trained crew, supporting vessels and the critical coordination that goes with it can be a floating target. China’s 2010 Defense White Paper acknowledges China’s challenges in the development of joint operation capabilities, calling for an increasing focus on “enhancing integrated support capabilities” (Xinhua News Agency, March 31). As China completes its carrier, an increase in submarine purchases by Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore advances China’s regional neighbors’ “sea-denial” capabilities . Moreover, some countries in the region already constructed airstrips, including a 1,200m runway built on Itu Aba, another 1,350m runway built by Malaysia, and another 1,000m runway on a Philippines-occupied reef . These factors all temper the regional force projection power of a carrier.
For the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands dispute, a carrier—both defensive and offensive in nature—would be effective as a psychological deterrent, but it risks sailing China into a maritime conflict with a formidable naval force beyond its own, namely Japan and the United States. China has intensified patrols by surveillance ships, submarines, and combat vessels in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in recent years. The presence of a large carrier in the same zones would create a more brute show of force. Any Chinese or U.S. naval expert grounded in reality will say that a near-term conflict involving a Chinese carrier would be unfavorable to any future Chinese force projection scenarios beyond the first island chain.
Possible Near-Term Uses of the Maiden Carrier
As to what role the carrier will play in safeguarding the Malacca Strait and other Chinese SLOCs, the carrier would allow China to better protect its own interests, such as shipments of oil and gas from western Burma (Myanmar) (South China Morning Post Online, June 3). China’s deployment of convoys to the Gulf of Aden/ Horn of Africa as an anti-piracy naval fleet have made the Chinese navy more aware of its limitations in performing naval operations far from China’s shores. For instance, the absence of basing arrangements to support the PLA Navy’s far sea missions will continue to challenge China’s long range missions (South China Morning Post Online, June 3). Yet, these missions may offer a preview of the type of mission a Chinese carrier could effectively carry out in the near term, maybe within the next 10 years. China’s anti-piracy missions, for example “escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia,” are mentioned in China’s 2010 Defense White Paper as included in military operations other than war (MOOTW) . MOOTW also includes “organizing naval vessels for drills in distant waters,” “air security for major national events, emergency rescue and disaster relief, international rescue, and emergency airlift” . China’s use of the carrier to support Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) missions both regionally and outside Asia, also an achievable near-term mission for the carrier, would integrate China’s carrier into the international system in a benign fashion, as China has done with its new hospital ship, Peace Ark (heping fangzhou).
In the near term, the PLAN might also utilize the carrier for foreign port visits. Kenneth Allen and Heidi Holz point out that, “PLA military diplomacy is not regarded as a freestanding set of activities with its own intrinsic value, but rather as a vehicle for furthering the Party-State’s strategic national objectives” . Port visits allow China to “show the flag,” impress the people of each port the carrier visits and further military-to-military exchange.
The real weight of the carrier program on the balance of power in Asia is several years coming, at the earliest after the carrier completes its initial sea trials and its airmen are trained. During this time, developing joint-operation capabilities and maintenance for the ship and its air-wing will cost China more time and money. Meanwhile, to China’s neighbors, the carrier’s presence is clear and present. A recent rise in “sea denial” strategies by Southeast Asian nations, perhaps in response to China’s attempt at “sea control” as symbolized in the maiden carrier, is evidenced by an increase in submarine purchases by Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Thus, the actual mission-effectiveness of a carrier decreases, especially for China’s most vexing regional flashpoints, as the region responds. Meanwhile, China’s maiden carrier is being outpaced in the face of new U.S. technologies such as jet-powered killer drones (Wired, June 1). Against this dynamic backdrop, a “70-year dream” is now coming true, due in no small part to the CCP, and the Chinese government can continue to stoke up the national pride of its own people. The symbol of the carrier allows them to do that. Yet, the massive investment in time, technology, talent and money means that a lot is riding on the carrier. China watchers and military experts will continue to monitor the maiden carrier, a dream no longer deferred, to better understand the PLAN’s real capabilities, and China’s expectations for this and any future carriers.
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