Liaoning – Paper Tiger or Growing Cub?
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Liaoning – Paper Tiger or Growing Cub?

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On Tuesday, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) joined 9 other nations—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, Thailand, Spain, Italy, and Brazil—that have aircraft carriers in their naval arsenal. But what does that mean for nations in the region and how should we assess the long-term implications?

For many regional observers, the announcement hardly ruffles feathers. In fact, some see it as a liability. For example, “The fact is the aircraft carrier is useless for the Chinese Navy,” You Ji, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said in an interview. He continued, “If it is used against America, it has no survivability. If it is used against China’s neighbors, it’s a sign of bullying.” Chinese leaders are the first to admit the Liaoning is for training purposes only and in fact, China’s air force doesn’t even have aircraft capable of landing on the carrier. Furthermore, carriers are more vulnerable without their protective and supporting battle groups. These battle groups require technology, investment, and training over the course of a decade or more to bring them together as an effective fighting force. Meanwhile, as pointed out above, as a concentration of capabilities, resources, and manpower, a carrier quickly becomes both a high-value asset and a high-value target for adversaries.

What benefit does the carrier bring to the PRC? First, it is a symbol of national pride for a nation that is rallying more and more frequently to nationalism in the waters of the East and South China Sea. Second, it serves as a testbed and developmental vessel for the next generation of up to five more Chinese carriers which have been reported to be in design and development. Third, even if the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has no desire to go into battle with other world superpowers, it would certainly give the nation an option for displaying military might in regions where the PRC has strategic interests around the globe. This hearkens back to the concept of nineteenth century gunboat diplomacy. For example, if you are a coastal African nation with significant resource trade with the PRC and there is a dispute over future rights or how Chinese citizens are treated, and a PRC aircraft carrier shows up off your coastline, it may influence your decision calculus. It also gives the PLAN a lot of staying power closer to home in the disputed areas of the East and South China Seas. If the ship is equipped with a wing of J-15 aircraft (currently under development in China), and then deployed near the Senkaku/Diaoyu, Paracel, or Spratly Islands, the PRC will have arguably established sustainable air dominance over the area.

So, the question remains, is the Liaoning a significant new capability or is it a waste of money on a capability that China will never realize? The reality probably lies between the two possibilities. PRC leaders understand that with exponentially increasing demands for raw goods caused by their growing economy, they must be prepared to field a blue-water navy to protect their strategic interests. The Liaoning is a measured step in the long trek toward a globally-capable navy that an emerging superpower needs. For a nation that takes a long and measured view of history, it is a logical investment. It is also a solid indicator of intent, but not a threat … yet.

Colonel Brian Killough is U.S. Air Force Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece originally appeared in the Council on Foreign Relations Asia Unbound blog.

Comments
29
pritish
January 21, 2014 at 18:00

if you are a coastal African nation with significant resource trade with the PRC and there is a dispute over future rights or how Chinese citizens are treated, and a PRC aircraft carrier shows up off your coastline, it may influence your decision calculus.

HA HA unless PLAN has suicidal tendencies of attacking a countries and bringing the wrath of major world powers on itself it would do well to avoid such taktics.

henry
June 5, 2013 at 22:02

USA has plenty of friends in the muslim world ready to cut their throats. Hahahaha. Ask bin ladens of this world ans see if. They are in love with usa.

NovaIncognito
February 14, 2013 at 07:20

Well, almost every nation in the world is highly dependent on the United States, whether economically, for aid, or for protection against Chinese bullying.  Do you really think if the United States didn't exist that China wouldn't have already just taken those islands by force if not taken over Japan entirely by now?  What's starting to get tiresome is this European Eunion (brought together in order to try to somehow keep themselves in the picture as global super power) with its 40+ trillion dollar debt acting so arrogant like their economically and militarily inferior nations know whats best.  Of course, as soon as one of these nations gets hit by some kind of natural disaster or faces an unprovoked attack by another nation, the first nation called for help is the United States.  The United States is damned when we do help nations asking for it, and damned when we don't help nations not asking for it.

chris tran
October 7, 2012 at 03:26

Yeah, that's what china intended to do when they invaded Vietnam back then, but did they achieve their goal ? Not ! they got their behinds kicked so hard instead haha.

chris tran
October 7, 2012 at 03:24

Yeah, that's what china intended to do when they invaded Vietnam back then, but did they achieve their goal ? Hell no ! they got their a**es kicked so hard instead haha.

bushi chan
October 3, 2012 at 21:12

Being a good Chinese, I say what I see. If china is bad, I say it bad.
My real chinese name is Bushi Chan, now I changed it to John Chan,
Sounds nice westerner, right?

invaded vietnam
October 3, 2012 at 06:22

china invaded vietnam not because vietnam invasion of Cambodia, but for the descendants of chinese in vietnam , robbed , killed by Vietnam, and be expelled from vietnam, to become refugees and so people live on a boat no food , no money , they are hungry and die in the boat , that's the reason why china invaded vietnam

Filipino defender
October 2, 2012 at 19:04

you mean one sided treaties just ask africa

Erica
October 2, 2012 at 17:33

Please go back home and see what do you US look like, so US never bully any country? try libya.

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