Is China building an aircraft carrier?

In an interview that appeared on the front page of the Financial Times today, a senior Chinese military official gave some “hints” about China’s aircraft carrier program. “Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach,” promised Major Gen. Qian ...

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591490_081117_china5.jpg

In an interview that appeared on the front page of the Financial Times today, a senior Chinese military official gave some "hints" about China's aircraft carrier program. "Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach," promised Major Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the the Defense Ministry's foreign affairs office.

In an interview that appeared on the front page of the Financial Times today, a senior Chinese military official gave some “hints” about China’s aircraft carrier program. “Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach,” promised Major Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the the Defense Ministry’s foreign affairs office.

In last week’s FP List, we called for Agent 007 to secretly gather evidence about China’s naval capabilities. Far from being reassuring, these vague comments from the Chinese military make James Bond’s (hypothetical) task even more urgent. We’d like to know the truth.

In response to the FT article, Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a security think tank, told me today that “China has waged an at times sophisticated and at times facile campaign of disinformation surrounding its aircraft carrier program.”  He believes the world will never get a transparent description of China’s carrier program.

The irony, though, is that this latest “campaign of disinformation”, while growing more sophisticated, clings tightly to its facile notions. On the one hand, the Chinese government has deployed an English-speaking and “avuncular”  military official (as the FT describes Qian) to massage the international press corps, which is quite unprecendented for China’s notoriously tight-lipped military. Yet the Chinese government seems to believe that other countries will not question its intentions, that simply averring it has no wide ranging naval ambitions is enough to divert the world’s attention elsewhere.

When pressed about its technological capabilities, “the [People’s Liberation Army] will seek to couch their missions in defensive terminology,” Fisher says. “However, the usual approach … is to assess the capability of the platform, its electronics and weapons, and then assume they will be used to the maximum envelope of those capabilities for any range of offensive and defensive missions.” When China does launch an aircraft carrier, it’s possible that the crosshairs will be trained only on the Taiwan Strait. But that certainly can’t last forever. Qian will have to find an easier pill for the rest of the world to swallow.

Photo: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

Jerome Chen is a researcher at Foreign Policy.
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