Disregarding Chinese warnings, the US Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Kaga helicopter carrier strike group linked up on Aug. 31 to conduct joint military exercises in the South China Sea.
The exercises did not serve any combat-training purpose, but were a direct response to China’s aircraft carrier program.
Ever since the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning entered service in 2012, China’s technological development has been surprisingly rapid. The first domestically built Chinese aircraft carrier, the Type 002, is being tested, and Beijing’s goal is to build 10 carriers.
Even Russia is reportedly hoping to rent the Liaoning for training purposes while its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is being repaired.
However, China’s aircraft carrier program underscores a mindset that is contradictory to its Belt and Road Initiative and could trigger suspicions and jealousy among the great powers.
With the Age of Discovery, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Great Britain quickly rose to global dominance by taking control of maritime trade routes and establishing colonies.
Many countries wanted to repeat their success, the most famous instance being Germany in the early 20th century.
At the time, Germany had not been unified for long and then-German chancellor Otto von Bismarck urged the German emperor to focus on expanding its land power in Europe rather than competing with England for maritime dominance.
When Wilhelm II acceded to the throne, he was envious of the benefits and profits obtained by England thanks to its naval power and focused on expanding the German navy, which aroused England’s discontent and contributed to the outbreak of World War I.
After economic reforms and opening up led by former Chinese president Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), China also aims to expand its maritime power.
Former Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general Liu Huaqing (劉華清), dubbed “the father of the Chinese navy,” was the first to call for the nation’s naval strategy to change from establishing a “light-blue navy” for shallow water to developing a “deep-blue navy” to break through the first island chain.
Since then, a similar mindset persisted in China’s strategic deployment until the Belt and Road Initiative, proposed in 2014, changed the situation. The initiative focuses on developing land power on the Eurasian landmass in the hope of recreating the ancient Silk Road and trade routes in the Indian Ocean, casting off the mindset of competing for dominance with the US in the Pacific Ocean.
This adjustment shook Chinese government policy and made implementation difficult, because the mindset of the leadership and bureaucracy could not be changed overnight, and the interests of the military-industrial complex also needed an outlet.
The original intent behind the Belt and Road Initiative was probably to define space for policy implementation through geographic boundaries. Today, it reaches across the Pacific to Latin America, which shows that it has evolved from being a geographically based concept to a situation-based one.
If China only wants to guarantee the safety of its maritime trade and break the “Malacca Strait dilemma,” it will not need 10 aircraft carriers to patrol the Indian Ocean.
Its ambitious aircraft carrier program resembles a countermeasure against its own Belt and Road Initiative and implies that China has not yet given up on competing with the US for dominance in the Pacific Ocean.
Yang Chung-hsin is a special agent at the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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