A carrier fleet would give Beijing some control over the sea lanes that crisscross the Indian Ocean, bringing vital resources to Chinese users.
And third, aircraft carriers are a talisman. Reversing China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western sea powers is a top priority for Beijing, which has noticed it’s the only permanent member of the UN Security Council without carriers in its naval inventory. India has one, with plans for more. Even the Royal Thai Navy sports one.
China believes it can rebrand itself as a great seafaring nation by procuring carriers.
The upshot: Beijing likely intends its flattops not for a cataclysmic sea fight against the US Navy, but to coerce or deter lesser Asian powers, safeguard merchant shipping in vital sea areas and uphold maritime claims others find objectionable.
This may come as cold comfort for China’s neighbors, but it also implies that Nimitz-like vessels aren’t in China’s immediate future. It doesn’t need them to prosecute more modest missions. For now, the PLAN likely will content itself experimenting with humbler vessels like the “helicopter destroyers” operated by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.
Such an interim solution would meet Beijing’s needs for the time being while allowing Chinese engineers time to master difficult technologies like steam catapults that are essential to big-deck carrier operations. That would keep Beijing’s options open should it deem more ambitious vessels necessary in the future.
That seems like a reasonable shipbuilding strategy.
James Holmes is an associate professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.