Argument

Blue Water Dreams

Why China wants an aircraft carrier.

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.

History is not unimportant here. China still nurses memories of its long "century of humiliation" at the hands of seaborne conquerors like imperial Britain, France, Germany, and Japan. Starting with the First Opium War (1839-1842), imperial powers defeated the ruling Qing dynasty again and again, compelling Qing emperors to accept "unequal treaties" along with such indignities as foreign gunboats patrolling Chinese rivers. Such memories are a lot for Asia's historical central power to stomach. Furthermore, Chinese observers have looked around the U.N. Security Council and noticed that all five permanent members except China deploy aircraft carriers. Closer to home, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operates light carriers known euphemistically as "helicopter destroyers"; South Korea has a similar vessel. Even Thailand has a flattop. The upshot is that a carrier will certify China's arrival as a sea power.

But there's more to China's navy than nationalism -- and there's more to the Chinese aircraft-carrier program than salvaging China's good name or keeping up with the Joneses. Beijing can use carrier task forces to uphold real, tangible interests. Most obviously, a PLA Navy carrier group could exit from the China seas through the Ryukyus, to Taiwan's north, or the Luzon Strait, to the island's south, during times of strife. By threatening the east coast of Taiwan, carrier groups would further complicate a tactical picture for the island's defenders that already verges on hopeless. The PLA already holds a commanding margin of superiority, so carrier operations would not decide a cross-strait war. But compelling the Taiwan Navy and Air Force to look eastward -- as well as westward and skyward -- would further disorient them, letting the PLA set the terms of engagement. PLA forces could thus prevail before the U.S. military could intervene, and Beijing would fulfill its dream of national unification with minimal disturbance to the regional order.

There's also the South China Sea, which has dominated headlines of late. Some Chinese-claimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels are too small to fortify; carrier groups would provide a forward, mobile airfield from which to defend the islands, the adjacent waters, and the rich natural resources thought to lie in the seabed beneath. And as Beijing turns its gaze further southwest, carriers could anchor a PLA Navy presence in South Asia, should Chinese leaders opt to create a standing Indian Ocean squadron. Flattops could perform many functions, just as these multimission platforms have spearheaded U.S. naval operations since World War II.

Nor must Chinese carriers match their U.S. Navy counterparts on a ship-for-ship basis to achieve Beijing's goals. As noted before, the PLA Navy surface fleet benefits from dense land-based fire support. For instance, the PLA Second Artillery Corps, or missile force, is reportedly fielding the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a truck-launched weapon capable of striking ships under way hundreds of miles from Asian shores. There is no known defense against it. If the missile lives up to its hype -- and if Beijing acquires sufficient numbers of rounds -- U.S. Pacific Fleet commanders will be increasingly reluctant to venture westward of Guam. And if they do accept the losses inflicted by ASBM strikes, U.S. mariners will encounter land-based combat aircraft, quiet diesel submarines, and stealthy high-speed catamarans toting long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. Just reaching the combat theater could come at a steep cost.

If indeed the PLA converts the Western Pacific into a no-go zone for the U.S. Navy, it can uphold China's Thucydidean interests without ever risking a battle with its major antagonist. Land-based defenses may grant PLA naval commanders time to train pilots. It's a steep learning curve: In 1954 alone -- fully eight years after a jet fighter first landed aboard the carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, and despite having developed sound concepts for flying jet aircraft from carrier decks -- the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps lost 776 aircraft and 535 airmen. China is by no means exempt from such hazards. Shore defenses also give China's navy a respite to work the engineering kinks out of the flattops themselves and to experiment with fleet tactics. Carriers steam in company with an entourage of escorts and logistics ships. It takes time to sort through various formations, defensive screens, underway replenishment techniques, and the like. Shore fire support affords the PLA leisure to devise its own approach to carrier operations, and it spares China the need for a costly, uncertain naval arms race with the United States. Why waste scarce resources?

By no means is combat readiness the sole motive propelling China's carrier ambitions. Carriers can prosecute numerous noncombat missions. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, Chinese pundits took note of how U.S. Navy vessels transiting the afflicted region rushed to the scene to render assistance. Hard power, in other words, enabled the soft kind, and Beijing felt sidelined. To remedy such shortcomings, it has built vessels like hospital ships and amphibious transports suitable for responding to natural and humanitarian disasters. Big-deck carriers would make a worthy addition to China's emerging disaster-relief repertoire.

And even these non-Thucydidean errands of mercy add luster to China's maritime reputation, bolstering the legitimacy of its naval enterprise and thus indirectly advancing its national interests. Great powers do well by doing good. Comforting the afflicted is not only worthwhile in its own right but helps the benefactor establish a track record for using its martial prowess wisely and humanely. Such a power eases suspicions of its intentions by furnishing international public goods that benefit not only China but its Asian neighbors. Beijing knows that to truly be a great sea power, you have to look -- and act -- the part.

LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Poor Little Rich Country

How do you categorize India, a nation that is at once fantastically wealthy and desperately poor?

In May, the Indian government announced that it was giving $5 billion in aid to African countries in the interest of helping them meet their development goals. "We do not have all the answers," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "but we have some experience in nation-building, which we are happy to share."

The British could be forgiven for being annoyed with Singh's largesse. Britain, after all, currently gives more than $450 million a year in aid to India, and has plans to continue doing so for at least the next few years. The British economy is bumping in and out of a recession, while India's gross domestic product is growing at more than 8 percent a year. This has put the British government in the rather bizarre position of having to sell bonds in order to donate money to Asia's second-fastest-growing economy, even as the latter is itself getting into the philanthropy business.

The policy is unpopular with most of the British press, which argues that because India has a space program and some flamboyant billionaires, it does not need aid -- especially when Britain cannot really afford it. (When the Labour government was voted out at last year's general election, the departing Finance Minister Liam Byrne left a one-line note on his desk for his successor: "I'm afraid there is no money." It was a joke -- but it was also true.) Nevertheless, Britain still sees itself as a donor nation, with all the obligations and international prestige that entails. This comes in part from a sense of postcolonial guilt: Prime Minister David Cameron spoke recently of a "sense of duty to help others" and the "strong moral case" for giving aid.

The situation suggests just how dramatically the economic rise of Asia has undone centuries of experience, and the expectation that the West will retain the hegemony it has had for the past 400 years. It is increasingly difficult to classify whether a nation is rich or poor, and terms such as "the Global South" and "the Third World" have to be heavily qualified to take into account the fact that large sections of the population in countries like China, Brazil, and India now have a purchasing power matching that of people in "the West."

In 1951, the American diplomat Bill Bullitt described the condition of India in Life magazine: "An immense country containing 357 million people," he wrote, "with enormous natural resources and superb fighting men, India can neither feed herself nor defend herself against serious attacks. An inhabitant of India lives, on average, 27 years. His annual income is about $50. About 90 out of 100 Indians cannot read or write. They exist in squalor and fear of famine." Today, it would be hard to make such an absolute statement about India. Poverty certainly remains a chronic problem, but it exists alongside pockets of substantial wealth. An Indian's life expectancy at birth now stands at 67 years, and continues to rise. It is necessary perhaps to think in a different way, and to see that a country like India, like Schrödinger's cat, exists in at least two forms simultaneously: rich and poor.

The most important change of the last two decades, since the beginning of economic liberalization, has been the transformation of middle-class Indian aspiration. Although the stagnant days of the controlled economy and the "Permit Raj" -- when important decisions depended on a bureaucrat's authorization -- had their own stability, they also stifled opportunity and individual talent. Members of the professional middle class frequently preferred to seek their fortune in more meritocratic societies abroad.

The modern Indian middle class has a new chance to shape its own destiny in a way that was not previously possible. You can move to your own house using a home loan and live outside the joint family; you can buy a car that is not an Ambassador or a Fiat; you can travel abroad and see how people in other countries live; you can watch your politicians accept bribes or dance with prostitutes on television in local media sting operations while surfing your way to Desperate Housewives or Kaun Banega Crorepati, an Indian adaptation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Businesspeople who have succeeded on their own merits overseas, such as PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, are presented as national heroes.

In the 20th century, the world's personal wealth was held in American, European, Arab, and occasionally East Asian hands. By 2008, four of the eight richest people alive were Indian, and 2011 is the first year in which more billionaires have come from the BRICs -- Brazil, Russia, India, and China -- than from Europe. In earlier times, India's rich were princely rulers or members of extended business families who had made a fortune in textiles or manufacturing. Industrialists would hoard capital, and there was a limited expectation of seeking to outbid your neighbors in gross ostentation. Since liberalization, many of the new flock of billionaires who have made fortunes in areas such as construction, real estate, steel, and technology are no longer the scions of well-connected families. An unbound social elite has grown with extraordinary speed.

At times this new wealth has provoked intense resentment. In Mumbai, the industrialist Mukesh Ambani recently built the world's most expensive private residence, a 27-story confection housing three floors of gardens, swimming pools, a "cool room" (which, in the ultimate Himalayan dream, blows flurries of fake snow), three helipads, a six-story parking garage, and several "entourage rooms" -- because who travels without an entourage? The steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, who lives in London and is presently the richest person in Britain, is today the only Indian richer than Ambani. In 2006, Mittal Steel's hostile bid for Europe's largest steelmaker, Arcelor, was met with dismay on the continent. The head of the latter firm, Guy Dollé, said sorrowfully that the predatory company was "full of Indians" and his own Luxembourg-based operation had no need for "monnaie de singe" -- an expression meaning "money without value," but a phrase that has the unfortunate direct translation of "monkey change." Lakshmi Mittal won the battle, Dollé was ousted, and Arcelor Mittal is now the world's largest steel company.

During this global financial shift, about one-quarter of India's population has so far gained almost nothing from the country's economic transformation. Those who live outside the cash economy, in hills and jungles and on land that is increasingly sought after for its natural resources, have not shared the benefits of national growth at all. The journalist Mark Tully, who has been reporting on India for nearly 50 years, once said that the crocodile tears shed over India's poor would flood the Ganges. Today, as inequality grows and some Indians become exceptionally rich, the arguments over the country's poverty -- its extent and depth and the best means of alleviating it -- are fiercer than ever. Surjit Bhalla, who runs an economic research and asset management firm in New Delhi, has argued that the numbers of India's least fortunate are massively exaggerated: In his analysis, a "conservative estimate" suggests the poverty level in India in 1999 was under 12 percent, and is surely even lower today. But a first-time visitor to India will notice at once that many people there are painfully poor, and that the suggestion that they number scarcely 1 in 10 of the population -- or lower -- is absurd.

Doubtful statistics are also used by those who dislike liberal economic policies and the effects of globalization. It is commonly claimed that 77 percent of Indians live on less than 20 rupees (about $0.50) a day. This figure has an interesting lineage, and first came to public notice in a report issued in 2007 by the left-wing economist Arjun Sengupta, which he claimed was based on data from India's National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), an official body. On closer inspection, it would appear Sengupta used average monthly per capita consumer expenditure for the year 2004-05, which came out at 559 rupees for rural India and 1,052 rupees for urban India. But what commentators who widely circulate this data do not point out is that consumer expenditure figures collected by the NSSO have consistently been low -- possibly because of under-reporting -- and are very difficult to square with the fact that other measures of consumption in India have grown steadily over the past few years.

Using more current data, the Indian government's Planning Commission announced a few weeks ago that in fact, 41.8 percent of the rural population and 25.7 percent of the urban population now live on 20 rupees a day or less -- suggesting either that India's poverty has been more than halved in just six years, or (more likely) that Sengupta's original figure was wrong, and should never have been publicized without extensive qualification. But obtaining accurate data on poverty and interpreting it reasonably is a difficult task; an additional problem is that India's state governments routinely overestimate their poverty levels in order to get more money from New Delhi.

In any case, even cautious figures suggest that a substantial portion of India's population remains desperately poor. The basic argument about whether economic liberalization has been good or bad for India is today largely conducted outside the country. In India itself, the debate ran itself into the ground in the late 1990s, when it became apparent that growth rates were higher even than the reformers had expected. All major political parties are now in broad agreement that it would be a mistake to return to centralized, socialist planning; after all, back in the 1970s per capita GDP in India was growing more slowly than at any point in the preceding 100 years. The crucial question now is, how to narrow the gulf between the rich and the poor? The Indian government has made some progress with social programs in recent years, but is moving interminably slowly, and corruption and weak governance at the centre remain a pressing problem. In the short term there is no harm in countries like Britain continuing with their aid projects, but India has the money to fund its own poverty alleviation programs. Whether it will choose to do so, is another question.

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images