China’s Realizes Carrier Dream

Recent Features


China’s Realizes Carrier Dream

The launch of China’s new aircraft carrier is a milestone for the country’s navy. But it’s of limited military utility.

Following is a guest entry from Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, co-founders of China Sign Post

China’s Navy has finally realized its longtime dream of obtaining an aircraft carrier and putting it to sea. It has been a long road from the Guomindang’s 1929 rejection of naval commander Chen Shaokuan’s proposal for building a Chinese aircraft carrier to the acquisition and refitting of the former Ukrainian carrier Varyag in Dalian Naval Shipyard, a task essentially as complex as building a carrier from scratch. 

On August 10, 82 years after Adm. Chen’s proposal, China’s first carrier disappeared into the fog under tight security at 0540 local time from Dalian Harbour’s Xianglujiao Port in northeast Liaoning Province to begin sea trials. Liaoning Maritime Safety Authority has declared a temporary exclusion zone in a rectangular sea area nearby. 

A newly-wed couple wants a ‘starter home,’ a new great power wants a ‘starter carrier.’ China’s ‘starter carrier’ is of very limited military utility, and will serve primarily to confer prestige though naval diplomacy, to help master basic operational procedures, and to project a bit of power—perhaps especially vis-à-vis smaller neighbours in the South China Sea. Having avoided the winds and waves recently sent to the Yellow Sea by Typhoon Muifa, the carrier will subject China to even more diplomatic turbulence as its neighbours react to the reality that their giant neighbour now has a basically-functioning carrier. 

For the foreseeable future, the ex-Varyag’s emerging capabilities will simply be too modest to challenge US power projection in East Asia. Compared with China’s robust, burgeoning missile, submarine, and sea mine capabilities, it has no useful role in high-intensity major combat operations, and won’t for the foreseeable future. Where it may cast an immediate strategic shadow, however, is in the South China Sea, where the less-capable militaries of rival claimants already feeling threatened by the growing capabilities of their gigantic neighbour. Unable to match China’s land or sea-based air power, they are seeking ways to protect themselves from what they fear will be increasing pressure from Beijing to compromise on their competing territorial and maritime claims. 

The ex-Varyag’s going to sea is thus symbolic of a larger evolution of Chinese capabilities and pressure that has already motivated Vietnam to expand cooperation with the United States and to announce its intention to purchase six Russian-made Kilo-class conventional submarines, and the Philippines to seek further military and political cooperation with its US ally. 

More broadly, this is yet another coming out party for China as a great power on the rise. The nation is bursting with patriotic pride, and plans are already underway to commemorate this new era of Chinese seapower—and boost the economy further in the process. Tianjin plans to do its part this October by opening China’s first aircraft carrier-themed hotel, based on the Kiev, once Soviet Union Pacific fleet’s flagship, and now the basis for Tianjin Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park. Operating a similarly-capable Chinese flagship remains far away, but Beijing has taken the first step, and is already reaping added influence at home and abroad. 

Andrew Erickson is an associate professor at the US Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. Gabe Collins is a commodity and security specialist focused on China and Russia. This is a revised version of a longer analysis. The full version can be read here