Should We Be Afraid of China's New Aircraft Carrier?

Not yet.

Six months ago, Gen. Liu Huaqing -- the father of China's modern navy and its commander from 1982 to 1988 (and, according to the state-run People's Daily, "a distinguished member of the CPC, a seasoned loyal Communist fighter, an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, politician and strategist, and an excellent leader of the Party, the state and the military") -- passed away. Liu sought to build China's navy first into a "green water" fleet and, eventually, into a full-fledged "blue water" navy capable of projecting power over vast distances. Key to realizing Liu's vision was an aircraft carrier, and Liu reportedly vowed: "I will not die with my eyes closed if I do not see a Chinese aircraft carrier in front of me."

While Liu may have died with his eyes open, they can close now. From the harbor at Dalian naval shipyard in northeast China, the first aircraft carrier of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will soon set sail for the first time. And much of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the Asia-watching strategic community in the United States, is hotly debating the implications of this move.

Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said in an April interview with Bloomberg that he is "not concerned" about China's first carrier going to sea, but allowed: "Based on the feedback that we received from our partners and allies in the Pacific, I think the change in perception by the region will be significant." Japan's Asahi Shimbun quotes a military source as stating: "We can see that China is spending a huge amount of its military budget for the construction of aircraft carriers.... With its naval power, China is seriously trying to counter the United States. This stance could lead to small-scale clashes and friction with U.S. forces or the [Japanese] Self-Defense Forces." Australian Brig. Gen. John Frewen contends, "The unintended consequences of Chinese carriers pose the greatest threat to regional harmony in the decades ahead." The Hindustan Times, citing a senior Indian naval officer, emphasizes that China's "first aircraft carrier ... will be more advanced than anything India has or plans to get."

There is much that the world still does not know about how China intends to use this emerging capability, so we should start with what we do know. The carrier Varyag was purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and brought to Dalian in 2002. In Dalian, the PLAN's shipbuilders have filled in the "guts" that the original hull was missing, including engines, generators, and defense systems. At 65,000 tons, the ex-Varyag is smaller than the 100,000-ton American Nimitz-class carriers. Instead of the catapult used by American carriers to launch planes into the air, China's new carrier features a "ski-jump" ramp to help aircraft take off.

These two data points generally indicate that China's first aircraft carrier will not be nearly as capable as its American cousins. Varyag's smaller size, and especially its ski-jump ramp, mean that it will not be able to deploy heavier planes that require the assistance of a catapult to take off. As heavier planes are required to collect information, coordinate operations, fly for long periods of time, or drop heavy ordnance, it seems that Varyag will primarily be used to extend the umbrella of Chinese air cover from its shores (as opposed to more general power projection, such as striking ground or naval targets, as conducted by American aircraft carriers).

In addition to its technical shortcomings, a single aircraft carrier is of very limited military utility. Even once testing is completed, the carrier will have to be in maintenance for several months out of the year. Additionally, China currently lacks the experienced naval aviators and sailors needed to operate a carrier successfully and safely.

Yet focusing on the military deficiencies of China's new aircraft carrier completely misses the point of its development. Above all, Varyag is a symbol of China's rising power. Many Chinese officials and academics interviewed by the authors portrayed the aircraft carrier as a symbol of China's great-power status. As one former PLAN official emphasized, "An aircraft carrier is a very complex weapons system and demonstrates overall national strength. China is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council without an aircraft carrier." Entering the aircraft-carrier club sends a message to the Chinese people, and to the rest of the world, that China has stood up at sea and is beginning to build expeditionary military capabilities commensurate with its economic and political power.

Moreover, testing an aircraft carrier and sending it on missions of naval diplomacy throughout the Asia-Pacific region will have the important effect of training a first generation of sailors and aviators experienced in aircraft-carrier operations. China has not had the decades of carrier experience that the U.S. Navy uses to such great effect -- it too must master complex carrier operations. With that in mind, every year of peaceful port calls and exercises by China's new carrier will be another year of operational experience for Chinese personnel.

Finally, Varyag is clearly China's "starter" carrier. China is already building a second generation of aircraft carriers, the first of which the U.S. Defense Department projects may be ready as early as 2015. China will undoubtedly learn many lessons from its experiences with Varyag and adapt subsequent carriers accordingly.

For the United States, the direct military implications of a Chinese aircraft carrier are fairly limited. The U.S. Navy is rather adept at striking large targets, and a Chinese aircraft carrier would be unlikely to survive beyond the opening hours of a general conflict with the United States. An aircraft carrier would also be of very limited utility in a war between the United States and China over Taiwan, given the mainland's ability to project air power over Taiwan from land bases.

Yet the strategic implications of a Chinese aircraft carrier for the Asia-Pacific region, and especially for the ever-more-tense South China Sea, are potentially significant. China has been increasingly assertive in its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in these busy, resource-rich waters, and carrier-borne air cover from Varyag could significantly complicate either country's ability to defend itself from Chinese aggression in these waters.

It is also in Southeast Asia that the political implications of a Chinese aircraft carrier are starkest. The Asia-Pacific region can expect Varyag to make periodic port calls in coming years. While the rhetoric surrounding such visits will undoubtedly focus on China's peaceful intentions and the promise of cooperation with Beijing, the not-subtle subtext of the message will be that China is powerful and has arrived. These countries will likely look to the United States as a balancer to the implied military challenge, and Washington must be prepared to answer the call as its interests dictate.

It would be a mistake to overstate the strategic consequences of China's starter carrier. It will not fundamentally alter military balances in the Asia-Pacific region, nor does it threaten U.S. military dominance. Yet it is an important harbinger of things to come. As China's naval power continues to expand and as Chinese aircraft carriers and escort vessels ply the waters of the Western Pacific, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean with increasing frequency, Washington will be forced to examine the underlying assumption of continued military dominance that lies at the foundation of its grand strategy. Given today's budgetary pressures, clear thinking about America's long-term interests and challenges is especially essential. The future begins now.

Tiffany A. Aiken/U.S. Navy/Getty Images


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.