On a visit to Washington this month, Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff, confirmed what Asahi Shimbun and the Financial Times reported last December: China, he said, has officially committed itself to deploying aircraft-carrier task forces, a program that has evidently been under way since 2009. A Soviet flattop called Varyag, refitted and reportedly rechristened Shi Lang, may take to China's "near seas" for sea trials sometime around July 1. Whenever it takes place, the maiden cruise of the Varyag will mark a milestone in China's return to great power.
Any number of excellent technical studies of Beijing's carrier plans have appeared in recent years, and much ink has been spilled debating the ship's design characteristics: flight-deck configurations, launch and recovery systems, and propulsion plants. But to my mind, the best guide for figuring out what it all means in terms of China's naval strategy isn't the latest edition of Jane's Fighting Ships, but rather the two-plus-millennia-old History of the Peloponnesian War. In his chronicle of the protracted war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C., the Greek general and historian Thucydides proclaims that "three of the strongest motives" animating states' actions are "fear, honor, and interest." Peoples must arm lest they fall victim to the "law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger." China's aircraft-carrier ambitions can be seen in similar terms.
During his tenure as chairman of the early People's Republic, Mao Zedong took little interest in the sea, focusing instead on land defense. Even after the Great Helmsman's demise, Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping contented themselves with free-riding on U.S. maritime supremacy, reasoning that finite resources were better spent on economic development than on putting steel in the water. But with development came increasing reliance on the sea for imports of fuel and raw materials, not to mention exports of finished goods. Shipping lanes now figure prominently in China's foreign-policy calculus. Chinese statesmen accordingly fret that the United States will hold China's economic interests hostage during a crisis or war in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in maritime Asia, mounting a "distant blockade" to interdict the crucial sea routes on which Chinese commerce overwhelmingly depends.
Fear that the U.S. Navy will cut China's economic lifelines from afar beckons China's strategic gaze irresistibly seaward. An editorial in the official People's Daily last December captured China's broader geopolitical anxieties. The United States, the editors write, is intent on preserving "its hegemony across the world," including on the high seas in Asia. Focused on latter-day containment, Washington has stayed outside the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Why? Because, the editors write, it "considers exclusive economic zones to be international waters, which, by its hegemonic logic, should be included in the U.S. sphere of influence." In voicing their own fears, Chinese pundits -- not unreasonably -- impute fear to the United States. "Any fast-developing country," concludes the Daily, will be "instinctively seen" as a challenge to U.S. primacy. Such countries must construct strong military and naval forces, equipping themselves to resist a domineering America.
Such a bleak analysis would be instantly familiar to Thucydides, who found the "real cause" of the Peloponnesian War in the "growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta." Fear made great-power war "inevitable." From Beijing's standpoint, assenting to permanent U.S. maritime supremacy would amount to knuckling under to Thucydides's law condemning the weak to remain subservient to the strong. Dread of what U.S. leaders might do with overwhelming sea power helps account for China's quest for a great navy.
But why aircraft carriers specifically? Beijing is already fielding an impressive cruise-missile navy specifically designed to deny U.S. naval forces access to Asian seas and skies during a Taiwan confrontation or some other upheaval. Cruise missiles, augmented by submarines, ballistic missiles, and land-based tactical aircraft, would be far more lethal against the U.S. Navy than any carrier fleet Beijing will put to sea anytime soon. Writing in International Security, Boston College professor Robert Ross ascribes China's carrier-centric naval buildup to "naval nationalism." In this view, high-end warships represent tokens of great power that Beijing simply must have to fulfill its destiny as a seafaring state. Such talismans fire popular enthusiasm for nautical endeavors, and for the state that undertakes them.