The Truth About China's Aircraft Carriers
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Truth About China's Aircraft Carriers

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According to public reports, China is building two aircraft carriers, with plans to increase that to four, according to one report, and possibly a new class of helicopter carrier for amphibious assault. For many in China, this has been a necessary evolution for a country of such wealth and international power. For the government, it is part of a techno-nationalist campaign designed to show that the country is arriving at the highest level of international power. The idea is that China can do anything the other great powers do. It can land jet aircraft on a carrier, it can put a rover on the moon, and it can put a man in space. This is the decade of impressive and inspiring achievement we have seen from China.

Yet the challenge China faces is that it is copying innovations first undertaken more than a few decades earlier (China was four decades late for manned space travel and six decades late for a jet aircraft landing on an aircraft carrier). When China puts a person on the moon later this decade it will be five decades after the United States did so. In those four to six decades, the innovation of the United States and other countries did not stand still. So we should not automatically assume that mere replication of such technological milestones is a good idea for China.

There has been some debate in the pages of The Diplomat about the expansive ambitions of China in the naval domain and about the contemporary value of aircraft carriers in naval forces in general. The view I identify most with is that from Harry Kazianis, “Why to Ignore China’s Aircraft Carriers” (January 28, 2914). He said: “There is a lot of Chinese hardware that could challenge U.S. primacy in the Pacific — but carriers are not one of them.” But I don’t even agree that Chinese hardware can challenge U.S. primacy. It takes a lot more than technology. It is about intent and allies, among many factors to consider. I don’t believe that Chinese leaders have it in their heads or in their budgets to challenge U.S. naval primacy in the Pacific.

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I also take issue with the speculation about China building naval bases in the Indian Ocean. It is possible at some point that they might do so, but it is not likely to be in the leaders’ plans for the foreseeable future. Why do they need foreign naval bases?

Let’s look first at the two new carriers. The best single statement on the continuing relevance or otherwise of carriers comes from Robert Ruble, writing in the Naval War College Review, when he observed that “the real arguments for and against them reside in their doctrinal roles.”

What is China’s doctrine on the role of aircraft carriers? In one of the most authoritative sources, the latest biannual defense White Paper (2103), we get the following indications. (1) “China’s development of an aircraft carrier has a profound impact on building a strong PLAN and safeguarding maritime security.” (2) “It is an essential national development strategy to … build China into a maritime power.” (3) “Overseas interests have become an integral component of China’s national interests. Security issues are increasingly prominent, involving overseas energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and Chinese nationals and legal persons overseas.”

Careful analysis of China’s doctrinal position on protecting SLOCs is that this is a multinational responsibility, not something that China can deliver by itself. A carrier would be useful in some cases to rescue Chinese nationals overseas, but these cases would be very rare. So if we are reading the White Paper to look for justification of carriers, we are left largely with the national prestige argument: “building a strong PLA Navy.” The word “sovereignty”, the proxy for a Taiwan-related mission, is not visible in the brief statement on carriers.

I can support strongly the view of Ronald O’Rourke, a leading analyst of the Chinese navy working in the Congressional Research service, who concluded in December 2014, “Although aircraft carriers might have some value for China in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, they are not considered critical” for such scenarios “because Taiwan is within range of land-based Chinese aircraft.” O’Rourke said that “most observers believe that China is acquiring carriers primarily for their value in other kinds of operations, and to symbolize China’s status as a leading regional power and major world power.”

In fact, China is still evaluating the appropriate combat role for carriers, if we can believe the statement of the commander of the PLA Navy, Admiral Wu Shengli, on September 12, 2013. He foreshadowed several years of such testing and evaluation, even though two additional carriers are reported by a Russian source to be in the early stages of construction, and other sources report a plan to eventually build four large new carriers of a class of ship yet to be fully designed.

O’Rourke suggested that the carriers could be used for power projection. If by that he means political intervention in distant crises for national strategic advantage, which is the main reason why the United States has carriers and why the USSR wanted them, there is a problem with that conclusion. China has no military doctrine for such power projection behind China’s national interests. The projected size of its navy in the next two decades would barely allow it. Moreover, China has a political doctrine that it will not undertake such interventions. Johan Lagerkvist is correct to point out that China is developing a higher tolerance for participation in U.N. approved humanitarian interventions and sacrificing its absolute insistence on sovereignty in such cases. But this is not the same as political interventions or power projection of the sort undertaken by the United States since aircraft carriers came into service.

China’s military budgets for development of capabilities beyond those needed for homeland defense and near-ocean operations will be a much lower priority for President Xi Jinping than for past leaders. In an environment of shrinking growth rates in the national economy, Xi will want to see much more spending on China’s military space program because of the impact that has on cyber warfare. He has already flagged cuts in conventional systems and manpower to allow for expansion of cyber capability. In the face of increasing terrorist attacks inside China, he will be favoring internal security above all else. Xi and the Politburo will support carrier development for the meantime, but as budget priorities change and new technologies emerge, especially in space and robotics, it is more than likely that China may limit its carrier force to just two new vessels (for fixed wing aircraft) rather than four or more.

In 2014, civil military relations in China (at least between the Party and military leaderships) took their worst turn since 1971, with the preparation of criminal charges against a former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and with Xi categorically outlawing all non-salary income for all PLA personnel. Military budgeting under Xi Jinping has entered a new reality, and any Chinese navy dreams of great power projection through carrier task force deployments may well fade in that environment.

Xi will want a Chinese navy that is visibly bigger than Japan’s (now achieved) but he will be content with (and forced to accept) a navy that will remain less than half the size and capability of the U.S. Navy.

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