Liaoning – Paper Tiger or Growing Cub?

Is China’s new carrier a step towards a true blue-water navy?

On Tuesday, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) joined 9 other nations—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, Thailand, Spain, Italy, and Brazil—that have aircraft carriers in their naval arsenal. But what does that mean for nations in the region and how should we assess the long-term implications?

For many regional observers, the announcement hardly ruffles feathers. In fact, some see it as a liability. For example, “The fact is the aircraft carrier is useless for the Chinese Navy,” You Ji, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said in an interview. He continued, “If it is used against America, it has no survivability. If it is used against China’s neighbors, it’s a sign of bullying.” Chinese leaders are the first to admit the Liaoning is for training purposes only and in fact, China’s air force doesn’t even have aircraft capable of landing on the carrier. Furthermore, carriers are more vulnerable without their protective and supporting battle groups. These battle groups require technology, investment, and training over the course of a decade or more to bring them together as an effective fighting force. Meanwhile, as pointed out above, as a concentration of capabilities, resources, and manpower, a carrier quickly becomes both a high-value asset and a high-value target for adversaries.

What benefit does the carrier bring to the PRC? First, it is a symbol of national pride for a nation that is rallying more and more frequently to nationalism in the waters of the East and South China Sea. Second, it serves as a testbed and developmental vessel for the next generation of up to five more Chinese carriers which have been reported to be in design and development. Third, even if the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has no desire to go into battle with other world superpowers, it would certainly give the nation an option for displaying military might in regions where the PRC has strategic interests around the globe. This hearkens back to the concept of nineteenth century gunboat diplomacy. For example, if you are a coastal African nation with significant resource trade with the PRC and there is a dispute over future rights or how Chinese citizens are treated, and a PRC aircraft carrier shows up off your coastline, it may influence your decision calculus. It also gives the PLAN a lot of staying power closer to home in the disputed areas of the East and South China Seas. If the ship is equipped with a wing of J-15 aircraft (currently under development in China), and then deployed near the Senkaku/Diaoyu, Paracel, or Spratly Islands, the PRC will have arguably established sustainable air dominance over the area.

So, the question remains, is the Liaoning a significant new capability or is it a waste of money on a capability that China will never realize? The reality probably lies between the two possibilities. PRC leaders understand that with exponentially increasing demands for raw goods caused by their growing economy, they must be prepared to field a blue-water navy to protect their strategic interests. The Liaoning is a measured step in the long trek toward a globally-capable navy that an emerging superpower needs. For a nation that takes a long and measured view of history, it is a logical investment. It is also a solid indicator of intent, but not a threat … yet.

Colonel Brian Killough is U.S. Air Force Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece originally appeared in the Council on Foreign Relations Asia Unbound blog.