Decoding China’s Aircraft Carrier
Image Credit: US Navy

Decoding China’s Aircraft Carrier


When is an aircraft carrier not an aircraft carrier? The answer could be: when it is Chinese.

The first aircraft carrier in the history of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s), which began sea trials earlier this week and churned up no shortage of media conjecture as it got underway, has to be understood on two different levels: the symbolic and the purposive.

Symbolically, the launching of the carrier is another instalment in the narrative of China’s achievement of great-power status. It belongs in the same bracket as the Three Gorges Dam, the Qingdao-Haiwan sea bridge and high-speed rail: mega-projects that demonstrate China’s technological prowess and boundless capacity to accomplish whatever it sets its mind to (even if, before too long, the dams crack and the trains crash).

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The carrier’s military symbolism is also immensely powerful. In truth, the PLA’s most successful modernisation programmes haven’t been conventional platforms like warships so much as asymmetric weapons – systems that aim to subvert the enemy’s strengths rather than counter them with like-for-like solutions. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-satellite systems and cyber warfare all fit into this category. Aircraft carriers most certainly don’t. However, the general public – not to mention the mainstream media and presumably many politicians, including Chinese ones – have no idea what asymmetric weapons are; they are esoteric concepts that don’t capture the imagination. Aircraft carriers on the other hand, just like the flashy new fighter jet that China debuted in January, are part of the widely understood lexicon of hard power. People appreciate that a country with an aircraft carrier is part of an elite and powerful club – and that’s precisely the message that the Chinese government wants the carrier to convey both to its domestic and foreign audiences. It’s a comprehensible metaphor for China’s arrival, and something to keep the nationalists sweet.

The ship has great economic symbolism as well. Just as China was launching its carrier, the United States was announcing that it was trimming the size of its carrier fleet in order to save money. It was the perfect moment for the Xinhua news agency to chide has-been America for spending reckless amounts on defence so that it could ‘meddle’ internationally while ‘paying no heed to whether the economy can support this.’ The message was that only China, sitting pretty atop $2 trillion in reserves, now has the fiscal right to build these military luxuries.

However, the practical purpose of China’s aircraft carrier programme is more open to interpretation. Is the carrier a symbol, and nothing more? Or is the refurbished ex-Soviet vessel also the thin end of a wedge that will culminate in a bona fide Chinese carrier capability, with all the security implications that that entails? With many countries in the Asia-Pacific looking on with varying degrees of concern, there are important questions that need to be addressed:

What is China’s first carrier actually capable of?

China’s own declaration that the ship is ‘obsolete’ and ‘for training purposes’ is probably fairly accurate. Naval analysts Andrew Erickson and Gabriel Collins have described the ex-Varyag – widely reported to have been renamed Shi Lang – as a ‘starter carrier,’ and it’s hard to imagine it ever being used as a weapon of war. This is a ship with training wheels for a navy that has never operated a carrier before. The first major milestone, after confirming that the ship itself functions, will be equipping the carrier with its air arm of naval J-15 fighters, which are themselves unproven and still in development. Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, estimates that the PLAN could achieve this objective within a six to 18-month timeframe. But training pilots to fly off carriers will be a long and costly exercise, he says. ‘This will inevitably involve failures, they will lose pilots,’ Cheng warns. ‘How will they handle that and what will be the political ramifications?’

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief