LATE IN DECEMBER, Huang Xueping (黃雪平), a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, confirmed that Beijing was seriously considering building aircraft carriers. For many in the West, the prospect of Chinese carriers conjures up images of World War II, with its titanic battles between Japanese and US carrier task forces.
Accordingly, naval analysts at the US Naval War College and elsewhere are atwitter over what Huang’s remarks may signify. Rumors have the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) doing anything from refitting the decrepit Soviet carrier Varyag to building 84,000-tonne leviathans comparable to the US Navy’s Nimitz-class flattops.
The buzz is understandable. If it lost its carriers in combat against China, the US could lose its dominant position in Asia in an afternoon while discrediting itself as a world power. It is doubtful, however, that the PLA relishes a head-on engagement with the US Pacific Fleet. Nor is a Taiwan contingency uppermost in the minds of Chinese carrier advocates.
There are pragmatic reasons for this. The PLAN understands that surface vessels are increasingly vulnerable to “asymmetric” attack by submarines, stealthy missile boats, or even land-based systems like the anti-ship ballistic missiles Chinese weapons engineers are reportedly developing. Inexpensive weapons pack a punch, even against US carriers.
That’s the insight that has driven Chinese naval thinking since the 1995 to 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, when the administration of then US president Bill Clinton dispatched two carrier battle groups to Taiwan’s vicinity as a deterrent. Unable to track or even detect the US task forces, Beijing in effect vowed “never again” to suffer such a travesty.
PLA sea-power thinkers have studied carrier operations assiduously since then. The PLAN has poured enormous effort into devising systems and tactics able to hold off US naval forces in a future showdown. As a result, there’s a real chance that Washington would think twice before risking these high-value assets in the Strait.
Having gained confidence in their ability to menace US aircraft carriers, PLAN strategists understand that Chinese carriers would be likewise vulnerable in a fleet engagement. After all, the US Pacific Fleet is no slouch at sinking surface warships. Rather than expose its flattops to a US counterattack, Beijing likely has other purposes in mind for them.
First, as Huang said: “China has a long coastline and the sacred duty of China’s armed forces is to safeguard the country’s marine safety and sovereignty over coastal areas and territorial seas.” While this sounds harmless enough, Beijing asserts jurisdiction over virtually the entire South China Sea.
Putting steel behind maritime territorial claims disputed by fellow Asian states only makes sense from China’s standpoint. Aircraft carriers sallying from, say, the PLAN’s new base on Hainan would put an exclamation point on Beijing’s claims vis a vis rival claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines.
Second, economic logic is refocusing Beijing’s strategic gaze on waters even farther afield than Southeast Asia. China’s current leadership has staked its legitimacy on improving the nation’s standard of living — and that means securing reliable seaborne shipments of oil, gas and other raw materials.
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.
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