Why China Will Base an Aircraft Carrier Near the South China Sea

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In July 2015, the Canadian-based, Chinese-language Kanwa Defense Review reported that China had finished building its second aircraft carrier base. The first base is in Dalian, in northern Liaoning Province; the new base, the larger of the two, is reportedly based in Sanya, on Hainan Island off China’s southern coast.

According to details of the report, which was picked up by Chinese media outlets, the base has a large pier that could accommodate two aircraft carriers at once. China currently operates only one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a retrofitted Ukrainian carrier believed to be used primarily for training purposes. In March, after months of rumors, Chinese media quoted naval officers who confirmed that China is constructing a second carrier, which would be its first indigenously produced model. Kanwa expects this new carrier to be principally based at Hainan (the Liaoning is based in Dalian).

At 700 meters long, the new base at Hainan is the longest carrier berth in the world, and the widest at 120 meters. Want China Times, citing the Kanwa report, said that construction on the base began in 2011 and was completed by 2015, although the base will likely continued to be worked on and expanded. The new carrier base is close to the existing Yulin nuclear submarine base; as Want China Times notes, “if the two bases are taken together, they will constitute the PLA Navy’s largest multirole base.”

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Yang Yujun, spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, was asked about the reports during his monthly press conference on July 30. Instead of confirming or denying the reports about a base in Hainan, he gave a general overview of the necessary features of an aircraft carrier base:

[A]s to the supporting facilities of the aircraft carrier on the land, they mainly include the port facilities for the aircraft carrier, the airport for carrier-borne planes and also the training facilities. These facilities will provide main support for the daily activities of the aircraft carrier.

“The construction of such facilities is determined by the task entrusted to the troops,” he added.

However, the state-run People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, legitimized the speculation yesterday by running analysis of the new base on its website. The People’s Daily piece summarized information from Kanwa with specifics of the base. More importantly, the piece borrowed analysis from thePaper.cn by Ma Yao of Shanghai International Studies University to explain why China would build a carrier base in Hainan.

Ma’s reasons were threefold. First, the strategic location of Hainan makes it ideal for a naval base. Ma pointed to Hainan’s proximity to “three strategically important straits — Malacca Strait, Lombok Strait and Sunda Strait.” In a reference to common PLA rhetoric, Ma argues that should Japan and the United States blockade the “first island chain” (stretching from Okinawa to Taiwan), China’s ships could still reach the Indian Ocean and southern Pacific via the South China Sea. Preserving access to the South China Sea thus allows China to protect its “weak” transportation channels for imported oil. A base at Hainan, Ma says, thus lets China concentrate its naval forces at a strategically important location where U.S. military force is relatively weak.

Second, Ma points out that Hainan is already home to a number of defense bases, providing protection for the carrier base. In particular, Ma says Hainan houses J-11B fighter jets, which respond to U.S. P8-A surveillance flights over the South China Sea. “The speed of their response, their high level of preparation, the skill of the pilots, and the excellent technology makes people gasp,” Ma writes with pride, saying that in a conflict these J-11B aircraft would provide cover for carriers.

Ma also notes the previously mentioned Yulin submarine base on Hainan. The exact makeup of China’s carrier battle group is unknown, but it is believed to contain at least one Type-093 Shang-class nuclear submarine, which are based at Yulin.

Third, Ma says that the Hainan base, “with its deeper waters and wider rims,” is an effective location for basing China’s nuclear force. Nuclear submarines require protection from anti-submarine warfare; the geography of the Hainan base provides good cover. Because Hainan is a geographically desirable base for nuclear submarines, Ma argues, it also makes sense to place a carrier base nearby to provide additional protection from anti-submarine warfare.

Nowhere in his piece does Ma mention the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the possibility of a carrier being sent to defend those claims. Ma is far more concerned with defending the potential choke-points of China’s trade and preventing anti-submarine and aerial warfare from being waged effectively against China. The rationale for the Hainan base reveals why the South China Sea is important to China, and it has nothing to do with maintaining control over reefs and rocks. In fact, nationalism aside, control over those disputed features is important mainly for the strategic reasons Ma outlines above.

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