Blue Water Dreams
Why China wants an aircraft carrier.
On a visit to Washington this month, Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff, confirmed what Asahi Shimbun and the Financial Times reported last December: China, he said, has officially committed itself to deploying aircraft-carrier task forces, a program that has evidently been under way since 2009. A Soviet flattop called Varyag, refitted and reportedly rechristened Shi Lang, may take to China’s "near seas" for sea trials sometime around July 1. Whenever it takes place, the maiden cruise of the Varyag will mark a milestone in China’s return to great power.
Any number of excellent technical studies of Beijing’s carrier plans have appeared in recent years, and much ink has been spilled debating the ship’s design characteristics: flight-deck configurations, launch and recovery systems, and propulsion plants. But to my mind, the best guide for figuring out what it all means in terms of China’s naval strategy isn’t the latest edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, but rather the two-plus-millennia-old History of the Peloponnesian War. In his chronicle of the protracted war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C., the Greek general and historian Thucydides proclaims that "three of the strongest motives" animating states’ actions are "fear, honor, and interest." Peoples must arm lest they fall victim to the "law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger." China’s aircraft-carrier ambitions can be seen in similar terms.
During his tenure as chairman of the early People’s Republic, Mao Zedong took little interest in the sea, focusing instead on land defense. Even after the Great Helmsman’s demise, Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping contented themselves with free-riding on U.S. maritime supremacy, reasoning that finite resources were better spent on economic development than on putting steel in the water. But with development came increasing reliance on the sea for imports of fuel and raw materials, not to mention exports of finished goods. Shipping lanes now figure prominently in China’s foreign-policy calculus. Chinese statesmen accordingly fret that the United States will hold China’s economic interests hostage during a crisis or war in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in maritime Asia, mounting a "distant blockade" to interdict the crucial sea routes on which Chinese commerce overwhelmingly depends.
Fear that the U.S. Navy will cut China’s economic lifelines from afar beckons China’s strategic gaze irresistibly seaward. An editorial in the official People’s Daily last December captured China’s broader geopolitical anxieties. The United States, the editors write, is intent on preserving "its hegemony across the world," including on the high seas in Asia. Focused on latter-day containment, Washington has stayed outside the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Why? Because, the editors write, it "considers exclusive economic zones to be international waters, which, by its hegemonic logic, should be included in the U.S. sphere of influence." In voicing their own fears, Chinese pundits — not unreasonably — impute fear to the United States. "Any fast-developing country," concludes the Daily, will be "instinctively seen" as a challenge to U.S. primacy. Such countries must construct strong military and naval forces, equipping themselves to resist a domineering America.
Such a bleak analysis would be instantly familiar to Thucydides, who found the "real cause" of the Peloponnesian War in the "growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta." Fear made great-power war "inevitable." From Beijing’s standpoint, assenting to permanent U.S. maritime supremacy would amount to knuckling under to Thucydides’s law condemning the weak to remain subservient to the strong. Dread of what U.S. leaders might do with overwhelming sea power helps account for China’s quest for a great navy.
But why aircraft carriers specifically? Beijing is already fielding an impressive cruise-missile navy specifically designed to deny U.S. naval forces access to Asian seas and skies during a Taiwan confrontation or some other upheaval. Cruise missiles, augmented by submarines, ballistic missiles, and land-based tactical aircraft, would be far more lethal against the U.S. Navy than any carrier fleet Beijing will put to sea anytime soon. Writing in International Security, Boston College professor Robert Ross ascribes China’s carrier-centric naval buildup to "naval nationalism." In this view, high-end warships represent tokens of great power that Beijing simply must have to fulfill its destiny as a seafaring state. Such talismans fire popular enthusiasm for nautical endeavors, and for the state that undertakes them.
History is not unimportant here. China still nurses memories of its long "century of humiliation" at the hands of seaborne conquerors like imperial Britain, France, Germany, and Japan. Starting with the First Opium War (1839-1842), imperial powers defeated the ruling Qing dynasty again and again, compelling Qing emperors to accept "unequal treaties" along with such indignities as foreign gunboats patrolling Chinese rivers. Such memories are a lot for Asia’s historical central power to stomach. Furthermore, Chinese observers have looked around the U.N. Security Council and noticed that all five permanent members except China deploy aircraft carriers. Closer to home, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operates light carriers known euphemistically as "helicopter destroyers"; South Korea has a similar vessel. Even Thailand has a flattop. The upshot is that a carrier will certify China’s arrival as a sea power.
But there’s more to China’s navy than nationalism — and there’s more to the Chinese aircraft-carrier program than salvaging China’s good name or keeping up with the Joneses. Beijing can use carrier task forces to uphold real, tangible interests. Most obviously, a PLA Navy carrier group could exit from the China seas through the Ryukyus, to Taiwan’s north, or the Luzon Strait, to the island’s south, during times of strife. By threatening the east coast of Taiwan, carrier groups would further complicate a tactical picture for the island’s defenders that already verges on hopeless. The PLA already holds a commanding margin of superiority, so carrier operations would not decide a cross-strait war. But compelling the Taiwan Navy and Air Force to look eastward — as well as westward and skyward — would further disorient them, letting the PLA set the terms of engagement. PLA forces could thus prevail before the U.S. military could intervene, and Beijing would fulfill its dream of national unification with minimal disturbance to the regional order.
There’s also the South China Sea, which has dominated headlines of late. Some Chinese-claimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels are too small to fortify; carrier groups would provide a forward, mobile airfield from which to defend the islands, the adjacent waters, and the rich natural resources thought to lie in the seabed beneath. And as Beijing turns its gaze further southwest, carriers could anchor a PLA Navy presence in South Asia, should Chinese leaders opt to create a standing Indian Ocean squadron. Flattops could perform many functions, just as these multimission platforms have spearheaded U.S. naval operations since World War II.
Nor must Chinese carriers match their U.S. Navy counterparts on a ship-for-ship basis to achieve Beijing’s goals. As noted before, the PLA Navy surface fleet benefits from dense land-based fire support. For instance, the PLA Second Artillery Corps, or missile force, is reportedly fielding the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a truck-launched weapon capable of striking ships under way hundreds of miles from Asian shores. There is no known defense against it. If the missile lives up to its hype — and if Beijing acquires sufficient numbers of rounds — U.S. Pacific Fleet commanders will be increasingly reluctant to venture westward of Guam. And if they do accept the losses inflicted by ASBM strikes, U.S. mariners will encounter land-based combat aircraft, quiet diesel submarines, and stealthy high-speed catamarans toting long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. Just reaching the combat theater could come at a steep cost.
If indeed the PLA converts the Western Pacific into a no-go zone for the U.S. Navy, it can uphold China’s Thucydidean interests without ever risking a battle with its major antagonist. Land-based defenses may grant PLA naval commanders time to train pilots. It’s a steep learning curve: In 1954 alone — fully eight years after a jet fighter first landed aboard the carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, and despite having developed sound concepts for flying jet aircraft from carrier decks — the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps lost 776 aircraft and 535 airmen. China is by no means exempt from such hazards. Shore defenses also give China’s navy a respite to work the engineering kinks out of the flattops themselves and to experiment with fleet tactics. Carriers steam in company with an entourage of escorts and logistics ships. It takes time to sort through various formations, defensive screens, underway replenishment techniques, and the like. Shore fire support affords the PLA leisure to devise its own approach to carrier operations, and it spares China the need for a costly, uncertain naval arms race with the United States. Why waste scarce resources?
By no means is combat readiness the sole motive propelling China’s carrier ambitions. Carriers can prosecute numerous noncombat missions. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, Chinese pundits took note of how U.S. Navy vessels transiting the afflicted region rushed to the scene to render assistance. Hard power, in other words, enabled the soft kind, and Beijing felt sidelined. To remedy such shortcomings, it has built vessels like hospital ships and amphibious transports suitable for responding to natural and humanitarian disasters. Big-deck carriers would make a worthy addition to China’s emerging disaster-relief repertoire.
And even these non-Thucydidean errands of mercy add luster to China’s maritime reputation, bolstering the legitimacy of its naval enterprise and thus indirectly advancing its national interests. Great powers do well by doing good. Comforting the afflicted is not only worthwhile in its own right but helps the benefactor establish a track record for using its martial prowess wisely and humanely. Such a power eases suspicions of its intentions by furnishing international public goods that benefit not only China but its Asian neighbors. Beijing knows that to truly be a great sea power, you have to look — and act — the part.