On August 11, 2011, the front page of The Wall Street Journal announced that China had sent its first aircraft carrier to sea.
Is this a game changing moment for global security?
Some say yes. Some see the launch of the carrier as China flexing its new naval muscle, a defining moment in the effort to become a top-tier naval power that seeks to challenge US military supremacy in Asia and protect Chinese economic interests that now are global in scope.
I don’t think so. While it may be domestically significant for the Chinese government and of concern to a number of Asian countries, it remains an incremental change in China’s overall strategic capability.
American analysts have focused on the size of the Chinese carrier, which is dwarfed by the nuclear-powered US Nimitz-class “supercarrier.” As widely reported, China’s carrier is designed to hold about 2,000 people and 50 fighter jets, whereas the American equivalents can carry 6,250 people and launch planes with more fuel and weaponry because of a catapult system and longer runway. US strategists have noted that China’s carrier is not nuclear powered, and is thought to have a gas-turbine or marine-diesel engine.
Other reasons for offering a more measured assessment include the fact that the Chinese carrier is built from an empty hull bought from the Ukraine in 1998. The vessel, nearly 1,000 feet long, has a new engine, radar, guns and other equipment, but limited combat potential without backup from an array of support ships. It is still not fully operational, and will — for the moment — be used mainly for training personnel, especially fighter pilots who are learning to land and take off from the moving deck. Moreover, without at least one other carrier group, any deployment would come with significant vulnerabilities, in spite of its support ships.
These are the technical reasons. More to the point, China’s launch of its first aircraft carrier should not, and need not, be perceived as a game changer. I recall my discussions with the Chinese in the mid-1990s, when they were trying to purchase the shell from the Ukraine. At that time, it was well known that China’s intent was to gain a flat-top carrier capability. Even with the acquisition of the Ukrainian hull, the Chinese still had to develop the technical hardware and software to make it modern and operational. This meant acquiring new weapons systems and retrofitting existing capabilities. There is, however, a long way to go before these technologies can challenge the advanced fire systems already deployed by existing naval powers, never mind those that are in the planning stages.
China’s intentions have not been a secret. In addition to weapons systems development, the Chinese have been systematic in their efforts to secure access to overseas ports on both the eastern side of Indochina as well as in the Straits of Malacca in the seas between Southeast and South Asia. They have also asserted their presence further north in the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea, and we are likely to soon see Chinese naval representation along Africa’s coast, where the Chinese government has eagerly been expanding its presence.
The carrier’s launch is not a game changer in terms of China’s relations with the major powers, though it may well carry more significance for those in contiguous areas.
The international community — including China — needs to consider both power and purpose in this new situation.
In terms of power, one aircraft carrier is not able to take on either the American or Russian fleets. China is joining Brazil, Thailand, India, Russia, France and the United Kingdom as the owner of one carrier, but still has to catch up to Italy and Spain, which each have two. With China, it is obviously about latent capacity. And its new blue water capability will no doubt make smaller countries in the surrounding Asia Pacific somewhat concerned, especially as sea power often comes with other aspects of penetration and/or intervention. A more substantial offshore navy is not only a military asset. It also affords a country enhanced diplomatic presence and a platform from which to advertise and market its technology, as well as related goods and services. It serves not only as an instrument of power projection, but as an agent of commercial interests and political presence.
What would be interesting to know, and strategically relevant for future consideration, are the vessel’s on-board weapons systems — especially what connectivity they have with China’s emerging air power, and satellite and other space-based capabilities. This is where I believe there is “game changing” possibility — if not now, then in the not-too-distant future.
This leaves the question of purpose. Some suggest this launch is the most potent symbol to date of China’s long-term intention to develop the power to deny US naval access to Asian waters, and more recently, to protect its global economic interests, including shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, strategically important straits, and oil sources in the Middle East and along the coasts of Africa — a continent where China’s diplomatic and political footprint is growing.
The more essential issue — for China and the other world powers — is whether, and how well, Beijing can integrate this new naval power projection capability, and its on-board weapons systems capabilities with other forces, including other major powers. This would also extend to the connectivity China may have with new satellite and space-based capabilities. The same goes for China’s aspiration to develop as many as four larger, indigenous carriers by 2020.
In terms of purpose, there are two sides to the equation. On one side is what are China’s intentions? Greater transparency would be helpful in avoiding conflict that could arise from misperception and lack of predictability. China would have the opportunity to show the world how it can be a constructive partner.
The other side is the other major powers — their posture and approach to responding to China’s reemergence. The West will want to study carefully whether the vessel’s launch should be seen as a new “milestone” in relations between an ascendant China and a debt-ridden United States or a rising power that is “bent” on reclaiming its role as a global power, as claimed in The Wall Street Journal, and a US that wants to retain the military supremacy it has enjoyed in Asia since 1945. What type of imagery lends itself to sound policy?
The United States is countering China’s military buildup by shoring up ties with old allies in the region, namely Japan and South Korea, as well as its more recent outreach to India and Vietnam. Several Asian and Pacific nations, including Japan and Australia, are building up their arsenals, as they watch the US security umbrella eroding due to China's growing capabilities, and await the likely cuts to US defence spending.
There is no doubt the launch of the carrier sends a dramatic message to China’s domestic audience about its national strength, as well as to the United States and its allies in the region.
The United States and its partners should ask whether, or to what degree, a stance of permanent forward deployment of naval capacities in Pacific Asia is likely to generate a (mis)perception of impending threat from China? Or, can this forward deployment be the foundation on which to build a sustainable partnership? Western allies should also ascertain if the launch of the new aircraft carrier is just the next step in China’s inexorable march toward challenging the existing global arrangement of interests and relationships. Or, is it more likely that China, which is emerging as a major power in all dimensions — political, economic, military — can become a strong contributor to security and prosperity in the Asia Pacific, working in cooperation with the other major global and regional powers? It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that it is the latter.