Should We Be Afraid of China’s New Aircraft Carrier?

Not yet.

Tiffany A. Aiken/U.S. Navy/Getty Images
Tiffany A. Aiken/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Six months ago, Gen. Liu Huaqing — the father of China’s modern navy and its commander from 1982 to 1988 (and, according to the state-run People’s Daily, "a distinguished member of the CPC, a seasoned loyal Communist fighter, an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, politician and strategist, and an excellent leader of the Party, the state and the military") — passed away. Liu sought to build China’s navy first into a "green water" fleet and, eventually, into a full-fledged "blue water" navy capable of projecting power over vast distances. Key to realizing Liu’s vision was an aircraft carrier, and Liu reportedly vowed: "I will not die with my eyes closed if I do not see a Chinese aircraft carrier in front of me."

While Liu may have died with his eyes open, they can close now. From the harbor at Dalian naval shipyard in northeast China, the first aircraft carrier of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will soon set sail for the first time. And much of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the Asia-watching strategic community in the United States, is hotly debating the implications of this move.

Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said in an April interview with Bloomberg that he is "not concerned" about China’s first carrier going to sea, but allowed: "Based on the feedback that we received from our partners and allies in the Pacific, I think the change in perception by the region will be significant." Japan’s Asahi Shimbun quotes a military source as stating: "We can see that China is spending a huge amount of its military budget for the construction of aircraft carriers…. With its naval power, China is seriously trying to counter the United States. This stance could lead to small-scale clashes and friction with U.S. forces or the [Japanese] Self-Defense Forces." Australian Brig. Gen. John Frewen contends, "The unintended consequences of Chinese carriers pose the greatest threat to regional harmony in the decades ahead." The Hindustan Times, citing a senior Indian naval officer, emphasizes that China’s "first aircraft carrier … will be more advanced than anything India has or plans to get."

There is much that the world still does not know about how China intends to use this emerging capability, so we should start with what we do know. The carrier Varyag was purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and brought to Dalian in 2002. In Dalian, the PLAN’s shipbuilders have filled in the "guts" that the original hull was missing, including engines, generators, and defense systems. At 65,000 tons, the ex-Varyag is smaller than the 100,000-ton American Nimitz-class carriers. Instead of the catapult used by American carriers to launch planes into the air, China’s new carrier features a "ski-jump" ramp to help aircraft take off.

These two data points generally indicate that China’s first aircraft carrier will not be nearly as capable as its American cousins. Varyag’s smaller size, and especially its ski-jump ramp, mean that it will not be able to deploy heavier planes that require the assistance of a catapult to take off. As heavier planes are required to collect information, coordinate operations, fly for long periods of time, or drop heavy ordnance, it seems that Varyag will primarily be used to extend the umbrella of Chinese air cover from its shores (as opposed to more general power projection, such as striking ground or naval targets, as conducted by American aircraft carriers).

In addition to its technical shortcomings, a single aircraft carrier is of very limited military utility. Even once testing is completed, the carrier will have to be in maintenance for several months out of the year. Additionally, China currently lacks the experienced naval aviators and sailors needed to operate a carrier successfully and safely.

Yet focusing on the military deficiencies of China’s new aircraft carrier completely misses the point of its development. Above all, Varyag is a symbol of China’s rising power. Many Chinese officials and academics interviewed by the authors portrayed the aircraft carrier as a symbol of China’s great-power status. As one former PLAN official emphasized, "An aircraft carrier is a very complex weapons system and demonstrates overall national strength. China is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council without an aircraft carrier." Entering the aircraft-carrier club sends a message to the Chinese people, and to the rest of the world, that China has stood up at sea and is beginning to build expeditionary military capabilities commensurate with its economic and political power.

Moreover, testing an aircraft carrier and sending it on missions of naval diplomacy throughout the Asia-Pacific region will have the important effect of training a first generation of sailors and aviators experienced in aircraft-carrier operations. China has not had the decades of carrier experience that the U.S. Navy uses to such great effect — it too must master complex carrier operations. With that in mind, every year of peaceful port calls and exercises by China’s new carrier will be another year of operational experience for Chinese personnel.

Finally, Varyag is clearly China’s "starter" carrier. China is already building a second generation of aircraft carriers, the first of which the U.S. Defense Department projects may be ready as early as 2015. China will undoubtedly learn many lessons from its experiences with Varyag and adapt subsequent carriers accordingly.

For the United States, the direct military implications of a Chinese aircraft carrier are fairly limited. The U.S. Navy is rather adept at striking large targets, and a Chinese aircraft carrier would be unlikely to survive beyond the opening hours of a general conflict with the United States. An aircraft carrier would also be of very limited utility in a war between the United States and China over Taiwan, given the mainland’s ability to project air power over Taiwan from land bases.

Yet the strategic implications of a Chinese aircraft carrier for the Asia-Pacific region, and especially for the ever-more-tense South China Sea, are potentially significant. China has been increasingly assertive in its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in these busy, resource-rich waters, and carrier-borne air cover from Varyag could significantly complicate either country’s ability to defend itself from Chinese aggression in these waters.

It is also in Southeast Asia that the political implications of a Chinese aircraft carrier are starkest. The Asia-Pacific region can expect Varyag to make periodic port calls in coming years. While the rhetoric surrounding such visits will undoubtedly focus on China’s peaceful intentions and the promise of cooperation with Beijing, the not-subtle subtext of the message will be that China is powerful and has arrived. These countries will likely look to the United States as a balancer to the implied military challenge, and Washington must be prepared to answer the call as its interests dictate.

It would be a mistake to overstate the strategic consequences of China’s starter carrier. It will not fundamentally alter military balances in the Asia-Pacific region, nor does it threaten U.S. military dominance. Yet it is an important harbinger of things to come. As China’s naval power continues to expand and as Chinese aircraft carriers and escort vessels ply the waters of the Western Pacific, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean with increasing frequency, Washington will be forced to examine the underlying assumption of continued military dominance that lies at the foundation of its grand strategy. Given today’s budgetary pressures, clear thinking about America’s long-term interests and challenges is especially essential. The future begins now.

Abraham M. Denmark is senior advisor at the Center for Naval Analyses. Andrew S. Erickson is associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and blogs at Gabriel Collins is a commodity and security specialist who co-founded