For decades, regional states friendly to the United States and suspicious of China have seen US carriers as reassuringly symbolizing the country’s ability to deter China from aggression against them. This was strongly reinforced in 1996, when former President Bill Clinton dispatched two battle groups to waters near Taiwan in reaction to China’s missile ‘exercises’ intended to intimidate Taipei.
If Beijing, as seems likely, ultimately chooses to use the carrier in operations in the South China Sea, where the United States is a self-professed guarantor of freedom of navigation but not a claimant, some other claimant states may feel the weight of China’s military more acutely than they have in centuries.
All this indicates that Washington and the Pacific Command need to deploy a strategy of regional reassurance as the Chinese carrier itself deploys. One element of this strategy would be to use hearings and public forums to make clear that China’s carrier is vulnerable to counter measures that the United States and its allies already possess. A second element will be public diplomacy that includes regular and high-profile deployments and exercises by US forces in the region.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Obama administration’s revitalized Asia policy is a good platform, and will be augmented if the administration succeeds in extricating itself from Iraq and Afghanistan and effectively ‘rebalances’ American attention to the Asia Pacific region—still very much a work in progress.
China can be expected to be as cautious as it has been up to now in revealing its new capability in the hope of reducing resistance and gaining acceptance of a new status for the PLAN. Port calls in the region with invitations to locals to visit the ship could eventually mark a new high in China’s currently truculent approach to transparency about the military.
But Beijing will also be tempted to steam its carrier close to Vietnam and perhaps other countries to send a tougher message to neighbours it thinks are too small to be uppity with China. In turn, these neighbours will have to choose between appeasement and deeper entanglement with the United States. And Washington may have to pick and choose those with whom it wishes to get more deeply entangled.
All this means that ultimately it makes sense not to overreact to China’s attempt at acquiring a capability already possessed by many countries and which may be in its waning days of war fighting utility anyway. At the same time, though, it will be necessary to address the perception gap between defense professionals and leaders and the publics in Asia while also thinking ahead about some of the choices to come. Maybe there’s a movie to be made.
Douglas H. Paal is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and as the unofficial US representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan. This is an edited version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.