Gabe Collins

The Diplomat’s Harry Kazianis sat down with Gabe Collins, co- founder of China SignPost, to discuss territorial tensions in Asia, the composition of China’s future aircraft carriers, and how China’s economy could impact its growing military power.

Harry Kazianis

Over the last year or so, China and its neighbors have made claims and counter claims over various islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea. Japan and China have also sported various claims over islands in the East China Sea. Tensions recently flared up when a Chinese plane from the State Oceanic Administration flew over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. In your view, how do you see such island disputes being resolved — or not — over the next five years? Do you feel there is a path that allows such disputes to be resolved peacefully? Is joint development of these islands and their surrounding waters with less of a focus on ownership or sovereignty a possible answer?

At this point, I don’t think there is a high probability that the island disputes will be resolved in the next five years. The continued strength of nationalism in China and the changing political tide in Japan, driven in part by China’s increasingly assertive regional actions and perhaps to a greater part by North Korea’s belligerence and missile development programs, are likely to preclude each leadership’s ability to make the political compromises necessary to resolve the disputes.

Ideally there is a path to peaceful resolution. For the time being, one optimal outcome would be a diplomatic “agreement to disagree” and a second agreement of some type, even if informal, to not operate military platforms in the area and treat the dispute as a law enforcement matter. However, for such measures to work, China would also need to refrain from using fishermen as proxies to assert its claims.

Joint development of resources will probably raise more questions than it resolves. For instance, what government gets the royalty/license bonus payments from a mineral lease agreement in an area? Also, would the Japanese public and political class view oil and gas investments from China’s CNOOC as simply proxy actions by a Chinese state owned company serving the national interest? At the end of the day, joint development zones work best when disputes are primarily about economic issues — such as those with joint offshore oil development in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea or with the Neutral Zone on the Saudi-Kuwait border. I hate to be pessimistic but in my assessment the East and South China Sea disputes are too wrapped up in political and nationalistic baggage to be solvable with joint development zones in the next 5-6 years.

While Chinese aerospace technology and air power have received a tremendous amount of coverage, something that is often overlooked in these analyses is the necessity of training  air crews and pilots to fly China’s 4th and soon-to-be 5th generation fighters. How would you rate the strength and prowess of the airmen who would fly China’s latest military aircraft? Does their training measure up to Western standards?

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It is tough to get a real measure of Chinese pilot quality because Chinese airmen do not participate in exercises with U.S. forces the way that pilots from India and other countries take part in Red Flag training, Cobra Gold, and other joint training. Also, we lack meaningful independent benchmarks because Chinese pilots have not seen nearly the amount of combat that U.S. pilots have (China’s last military conflict was the Johnson Reef skirmish with Vietnam in 1988).

While I don’t have a good measuring stick for how good Chinese pilots are, one thing we do know is that training is expensive and is likely to occupy a larger portion of the Chinese military budget in the coming years as new platforms are integrated into the force. Fuel is a major component of the cost of air operations and watching PLA jet fuel procurement is one barometer that can help outside analysts assess the true level of the PLA’s day-to-day air operations and training tempo.

Moving to carrier aviation, you have commented quite a bit on China’s first aircraft carrier that was recently inducted into the Chinese Navy, or PLAN. Looking out into the future: how do you see the future of China’s aircraft carrier program playing out? Do you think future carriers will be of a similar design as the Liaoning? Do you see future carriers being designed based on nuclear power? How many carriers would you estimate China would need to meet its geostrategic needs?

I’ll start by answering your questions in reverse because the last and first questions are interrelated. China’s geostrategic needs are a dynamic and malleable concept that depends heavily on perceptions within the Chinese leadership, China’s evolving global interests, and a feedback loop in which Chinese actions influence its neighbors, the neighbors respond, and China acts in response to the other countries’ reactions.

A fleet of five carriers would give China a strong regional capability and ensure that two carrier groups could always be either deployed or in a state of readiness. To maintain carrier operations outside the region, the PLAN would need more carriers, nuclear attack subs for escort, and a very substantial network of ports and ship repair facilities that it could readily access. The only region outside of East Asia where it would make clear strategic sense for China to potentially send carrier groups would be the Indian Ocean region (perhaps eventually including the Persian Gulf).

But this is not something I see happening anytime soon, especially if the U.S. Navy remains deeply engaged in the region. Even as rising domestic oil production from the fracking boom makes the U.S. less dependent on oil imported from the Middle East, policymakers in Washington should continue to emphasize a robust forward deployed naval presence in the Indian Ocean and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area. The reason for this is that U.S. energy prices will still be based on global markets and because a regional naval security vacuum could set in motion a strategic train of consequences that ultimately prove adverse to U.S. interests.

I still strongly believe that a navy with a strong regional capability and limited global expeditionary power projection ability would be able to handle the contingencies China is most likely to face in the coming years. For instance, if Chinese citizens abroad were threatened in a future Libya-type crisis, amphibious ships with embarked attack and transport helicopters might actually be more effective platforms for protection and evacuation operations than a carrier would be. I have written at length on this subject and would encourage readers to have a look at the analysis I did last year for The Diplomat on the topic of China building expeditionary military capabilities.

In terms of China’s future carrier fleet, I don’t think the PLAN “needs” nuclear power per se, but it might still want it. Also, given that nuclear powered submarines will be important both as escorts for carrier groups and for China’s strategic nuclear deterrent, the PLAN is likely to be investing heavily in nuclear ship propulsion research and the carrier program could benefit from the fruits of such research.

With regard to ship design, it is tough to say at this point. My personal view is that the PLAN would like carriers with catapults because that would allow aircraft to be launched with heavy fuel and weapon loads that are simply not doable with a ski-jump deck. A carrier with catapults able to launch fully loaded J-15s, airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, and aerial refueling tankers would be a formidable weapons system. The strategic benefits are such that I have trouble seeing why the PLAN leadership would not want future carriers to have catapults.

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A tremendous amount of money must be spent by nations like China to develop 21st century military forces. Over the last several months, there have been fears that China’s economy may slow and not approach the double-digit growth rates of years past. What effect would this have on the increasing strength and modernization of China’s military?

Slowing economic growth would certainly shrink the pool of resources that could potentially flow toward military modernization. I think two equally important issues are: (1) the effects of private sector wage inflation on military personnel costs as the PLA competes with private business for talented people and (2) the fact that China has a growing range of internal spending priorities including healthcare, pollution mitigation, and internal security that may constrain Beijing’s ability to maximally fund military development.

China is encountering these headwinds at a much earlier stage in its development than did the U.S. and other great powers, thanks in part to its late start in modernization and its dramatic internal disparities. As such, policymakers and military leaders in China will likely increasingly be forced to prioritize between platform acquisition, training, and personnel costs.

We may also see an increasing number of Chinese defense enterprises seeking to access the local and global capital markets by selling stock shares and bonds.  This trend is already well underway in the shipbuilding sector, for instance, and could allow continued technical development that in turn allows a larger share of military funds to be allocated to personnel and training expenses.

Even at a lower level of defense spending, China could still increase its power and influence substantially in East Asia and even challenge U.S. and allied interests there substantially, but the nature of the challenge will be very different depending on how Beijing chooses to allocate its resources between national defense and pressing domestic priorities such as education and healthcare.

It is also important to bear in mind that even if China’s GDP growth rate slows, the size of the economy is now such that even a 4% annual GDP increase rate means national economic output will grow by upwards of U.S. $300 billion each year. So the resource pool that can be tapped to serve military budget needs is still very large even under a slower growth regime.

Harry Kazianis
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Harry Kazianis

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Managing Editor for The National Interest.

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