The sea trials of China’s first domestically-constructed aircraft carrier have sparked a fresh debate about Chinese naval power. Some have argued that the carriers, while still vulnerable in a clash of major powers, would cement Chinese leadership if the United States withdraws from the region. Others have pointed to growing Chinese amphibious capabilities as being the naval point to watch.
It would be better to expect that China’s new aircraft-carrying fleet need not await a major conflict to be valuable – indeed it may be most valuable in the absence of war. Rather than confronting other major navies, these big new ships will go to work instead boosting China’s prestige and standing in the Indo-Pacific regional order. This may happen in two ways: as the peacetime deployment of such a fleet lets China, without direct conflict, dilute U.S. influence in the region; and as the signals sent by aircraft carriers allow a clean break in regional perceptions of China’s status.
China’s 2015 Defense White Paper embraced a combination of “near seas defense” and “far seas protection,” likely giving China by 2030 a “limited expeditionary” capability encompassing natural disasters, evacuations, counterterrorism, and the security of sea lanes. As a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officer stated: “The second carrier will mainly do what a genuine aircraft carrier is supposed to do: running combat patrols and delivering humanitarian aid.” The key is that the humanitarian role is much more than mere rhetoric and deserves close attention.
Humanitarian activities are important because China, along with all the major states of the region, is competing for relative status. This ranking in the regional order is adjusted through competition, including contestation in regional institutions, assertion of responsibilities, and, if not armed conflict, then potentially diplomatic coercion and the threat of force. This process is important because it lets states establish common beliefs about each other’s rights, responsibilities, and the hierarchy of deferense. Using naval power for humanitarian assistance is ideal for this, because it lets states demonstrate raw strength, establish practical international links, and show off moral leadership.
A major instance of this status-building in action was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which was met by a multinational relief effort led by the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. Scholars such as Robert Ross argue that the disaster helped set off the popular mood in China in favor of an aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, Andrew Erickson and A.R. Wilson see the incident as a key turning point in the Chinese leadership’s assessment of aircraft carriers’ value. They have pointed to Chinese military publications enviously describing Japan as a “great power of disaster relief,” while the political implications of the disaster response showed the importance of navies not just in conflict, but in “national construction, disaster relief, and rebuilding.”
Beijing is likely to see humanitarian operations in a ruthlessly pragmatic light for at least three reasons. First, humanitarian operations reinforce China’s regional status claims because they are an excellent demonstration of real operational capability. As an adjunct to this, as the United States, Japan, and Australia have found, humanitarian assistance is an excellent avenue for “defense diplomacy.” The need to prepare for such contingencies provides a versatile pretext for gaining access and bilateral cooperation with local partners, irrespective of traditional alliances, while a track record of humanitarian assistance can also justify establishing access rights or even bases overseas.
Second, humanitarian assistance yields quantifiable soft-power dividends. Pew Research Center figures show a measurable improvement in attitudes toward the United States after natural disasters such the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Similarly, Japan gained diplomatic kudos in ASEAN after it made its largest postwar naval deployment after the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Philippines, while China suffered media criticism for its meager donation.
A third aspect of humanitarian assistance of specific importance to China is the scope for expeditionary naval forces to assist in the evacuation of Chinese nationals from crises abroad. This has long been seen as a key point on which Beijing demonstrates the legitimacy of the Communist Party regime. One study has noted that while there would be practical benefits to air cover, Beijing is also keenly aware of the diplomatic potential of stationing a carrier group near a country where Chinese citizens are under threat.
These strategic motivations indicate the way humanitarian assistance by a rising power can erode the role of established actors, and allow China increased status in the regional order. On the other hand, it will take sustained effort, ongoing funding streams, and the diversion of considerable technical and professional expertise to develop a fully operational carrier force.
Additional factors might for Beijing justify the immense expense – estimated at around $10 billion – of constructing a carrier group.
One of these is the fact that the very expense of aircraft carriers reflects makes them a form of conspicuous consumption. This status symbol argument holds that aircraft carrier construction, like China’s space program and hosting of the Olympic Games, shows off not only a wealthy country, but one with leading technical and organizational capacities.
In addition to this, there is growing research in international relations scholarly circles about the importance of sending clear and dramatic messages in order to boost status. Unlike other status symbols, aircraft carrier deployments carry greater potential to shift observers’ attitudes. As Jonathan Renshon argues, events that are highly visible to all, that are relevant enough to attract the concern of decision-makers, and that convey unambiguous information, are more likely to shift established beliefs about national status. Aircraft carriers are such a widely accepted symbol that they generate immediate mutual awareness – if Beijing deploys one overseas, it can expect that not only will everyone pay attention, but everyone will understand the kind of power being displayed.
The implication is that we could expect Chinese aircraft carriers to appear as soon as possible in nontraditional security roles around the region. This could still be compatible with Beijing reducing expenses by stretching the carrier construction program out to 2050 or beyond. The big unknown is how operational the carrier (or indeed, large amphibious ship) will be, as its role may well be largely symbolic at first. The key is to be aware that the aircraft carrier is there to construct the image that China is a major power. Without firing any shots, aircraft carriers would help rebuild regional order with China in a leading position.
Richard Salmons is an adjunct professor at Temple University Japan Campus in Tokyo. Thanks to Andrew Erickson for helping identify a quote in this article.