China’s new aircraft carrier should surprise only those who were not looking — it has been China’s largest open secret for several years now. It has been apparent – thanks to Google Earth –, that the partially-completed Soviet-era vessel that China’s Chong Lot Travel Agency bought for $20 million in the late-1990s, complete with designs, was not really going to be used as a floating casino and amusement park. There have been other signs, including facilities and training programmes for naval personnel and aviators, that suggested China intended to operate aircraft carriers. As early as 1987, General Liu Huaqing, the recently deceased father of the modern People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, said, “Without an aircraft carrier, I will die with my eyelids open; the Chinese Navy needs to build an aircraft carrier.”
So, both stated intentions and signs on the ground indicated that an aircraft carrier was on the cards. The only question was why, for the PLA Navy’s strategy over the last two decades has been to counter the US’ formidable surface fleet through the development of its own submarine force. This strategy – of using submarines to neutralise the power of aircraft carriers and warships – was pioneered by Soviet Union’s Admiral Sergey Gorshkov. In a remarkable demonstration of irony or its deficiency, the Soviets named one of their aircraft carriers after him, the same that India since bought and whose delivery it is awaiting.
If aircraft carriers are a platform for a country to project hard power far beyond its shores, submarines are an effective way to deny them space. China had around 65 operational submarines last year. In 2007, one of them slipped past an array of ships and aircraft into an area in the Pacific Ocean where the US Navy’s aircraft carrier strike group was conducting training exercises. That incident was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to the Gorshkov strategy. It was also a signal of the changed maritime balance in the Western Pacific ocean.
The utility of aircraft carriers as a device to project power on the littoral is also undermined by anti-ship missiles. Chinese-made anti-ship missiles or their variants are deployed, among others, by North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Bangladesh and, possibly, Pakistan. To the extent that their range, capability and proliferation grow, aircraft carriers become less useful in their traditional roles of power projection.
In other words, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier are likely to diminish over time, even if the costs stay the same. An aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and causes a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed.
After doing so much to neutralise the strategic utility of aircraft carriers, why does China want to deploy them? Of course, there is prestige. Another reason is to do with the balance of power within the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, where pro-PLA Navy factions might have strengthened in recent years. That said, it is difficult to conclude if the Navy’s growing political clout is the cause for or the effect of the geopolitical churn in east Asia. Beyond these explanations, there are three broad reasons why China might want to use aircraft carriers.
The first is Taiwan. The very name proposed for the new carrier, Shi Lang, suggests Taiwan as its intended target. Shi Lang, a Manchu Qing dynasty general, conquered and annexed Taiwan into the Chinese empire in 1683, defeating the Qing dynasty elite who had fled to that island. Lan Ning-Li, a retired Taiwanese admiral, notes: “The carrier would be in a position to move in areas surrounding southern and eastern Taiwan ...[making it] vulnerable to enemy attacks at sea from both front and rear.” With nuclear weapons and submarines deterring the US, an aircraft carrier will add to China’s military capabilities in a possible invasion of Taiwan. The PLA’s statement that “even after China owns an aircraft carrier, it is impossible for China to send the carrier into the territories of other countries” does not rule out use against Taiwan, which according to Beijing is part of China, thanks to the original Shi Lang.
Second, an aircraft carrier can be used as a vehicle for China to enforce its territorial claims over the Yellow, East and South China seas. If so, Shi Lang will be replacing fishing trawlers that have engaged in decidedly unfishermanly activities such as carrying surveillance equipment, ramming Japanese patrol boats, entangling with cables connected to Vietnamese exploration vessels and squatting over unpopulated islands. These presumably non-state actors currently perform the function of tripwires, creating incidents that trigger Beijing to assert its maritime claims. Introducing aircraft carriers into this game is dangerous, but the threat to do so could deter the US Navy from entering the fray in support of its allies.
Finally, China’s interests are global. It is likely to want to set up expeditionary forces to operate in distant theatres to pursue those interests. This is normal. However, like “peaceful rise”, a “defensive aircraft carrier” is a layer of sugar coating applied to make the indigestible just a little more palatable.
The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and is editor of Pragati
– The Indian National Interest Review