Aircraft carrier force-projects China into the 21st Century
From the beginning of the 19th century, the world became increasingly familiar with the ascendancy of the West - economically, politically and militarily. But the world order is changing -- and shifting back east, as China’s new aircraft carrier shows. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
The ascendancy of the West followed many centuries where Asia’s legendary civilizations had been leagues ahead. In the 15th century, for example, Chinese admiral Zheng had sailed a massed flotilla of hundreds of vessels across the Indian Ocean in voyages way beyond the capabilities of any European nation.
As late as the Opium War of 1832 -1847, the point of Britain’s military efforts toward China was that opium grown in India was the only commodity the British could successfully export to China to earn revenue needed to buy China’s tea, silk, finely crafted arts, furniture and porcelain. The war’s purpose was to force the Chinese to allow British merchants to legally sell addictive drugs inside China so they could, in turn, buy Chinese luxury goods for the rest of the world. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, while there were still riches to be earned “out East,” the terms of trade had changed decisively. China and the rest of East Asia were eager to buy western manufactured goods -- or forced to buy them by virtue of western political domination. Their problem had become finding a way to pay for it.
By the time Japan defeated, first China in 1895, and then the Russians in 1904-5, this was the first tocsin marking the fact that the age of Western domination was beginning to come to an end. Everything else that has happened since has simply underscored this long-term trend. The number two and three economies in the world are now China and Japan – and other nations like India, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea continue to post economic growth figures, adding depth and shading to the argument that the 21st century is the century of a now thoroughly resurgent Asia. China’s presence in the American economic system includes its impressive total of exports to the U.S., its place as the largest market for American agricultural products, and its place as a prime holder of U.S. debt. It is also a prime location for the outsourcing, subcontracting and franchising of hundreds of American brands and products.
Indeed, sombre analysts like the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ Arvind Subramanian now argue, that China’s economic dominance is a reality. Not only that, Subramanian says “China's dominance is not only more imminent, but also broader in scope, and much larger in magnitude, than is currently imagined.”
Now, put that together with some current unpleasantness over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands between Japan and China. The Japanese government purchased them directly from a private owner and now, most recently as Japanese patrol ships fired water cannons at 50 Taiwanese fishing vessels that had entered Japanese waters. This may be seen together with a number of earlier verbal (or worse) tussles over the Spratly and Paracel Island groups in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam and other neighbouring states, or their annual ritualized anger over Japanese memorial services for its World War II dead at the Yasukuni Shrine. This latest fisticuffs has led to demonstrations against Japan and Japanese industrial plants in Chinese cities as a projection both of Chinese national pride and as a representation of a sense of wounded national honour. Taken together, these things become a kind of lens that focuses the energy from these historic animosities and conflicts and channels it forward to fuel further the temper of current circumstances.
No one is foolish enough to argue Japan and China are on glide paths that will mimic Japan’s aggression of the 1930s of a then-supine China, or much earlier attempts by a Mongol-led China to invade Japan in the late 13th century. But the two nations’ relations are just as clearly not at their best. There are unresolved, systemic reasons for them to stay that way, and there is little apparent prospect for their being re-righted to a state of happy normality anytime soon.
This, then, is the larger context in which the Chinese have just announced -- with significant fanfare - the official launching of a new -- albeit refurbished -- aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, designed, in the words of the Chinese government to “protect national sovereignty, security and development interests.”
As the Chinese government reported on the commissioning, per BBC reports, the 301 metre-long Liaoning “would raise the ‘fighting capacity’ of the Chinese navy to what it called a ‘modern level.’”
That doesn’t quite sound like the kind of thing one says when launching a cruise ship.
The vessel is named after China’s north-eastern Liaoning province that is home to the country’s main naval city of Dalian, where the ship was refurbished – and a port which had earlier been a symbol of foreign domination of China -- first as a Russian military outpost and then as a Japanese one, post-1905. For the next while, the Chinese have said the ship will basically be a training and testing vessel, but observers add that as it transitions to a more standard operational role, it could well have a “significant influence” on regional maritime disputes. Like the Spratlys, the Paracels, and Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands – just for a start.
Or, as The Wall Street Journal explains, the Liaoning could be an “indicator of how China will use its growing power. As Major General Qian Lihua declared in November 2008, ‘The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier.’ Encouragingly, China’s MND lists developing ‘Far Seas cooperation’ and capabilities to address non-traditional security threats as missions for the Liaoning. At the same time, however, it mentions safeguarding national sovereignty as another mission -- presumably to address territorial and maritime disputes closer to home.”
The presence of this carrier will begin to give China’s neighbours a few more troubled moments as they contemplate their next steps over disputed territorial waters. Vietnam, after all, has already had naval skirmishes with Chinese naval forces over disputed island groups back in 1974 and 1988, although the Chinese forces did not have sufficient air support at that time and eventually had to pull back. And the international status of these two island groups in particular remains the subject of disputed, overlapping claims by China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. And then there is that little matter of the islands’ potential as a producer of natural gas and oil as well as being a significant site for pelagic fishing resources.
Now-retired Chinese Rear Admiral Chen Weiwen who was a commander in the 1988 Spratlys conflict, has spoken to foreign media about the difference between the 1988 contretemps and a potential future one, once the carrier is available: “During the Spratly Sea Battle, the thing we feared most was not Vietnam’s surface vessels, but rather their aircraft. At that time, Vietnam had Su-22 fighter aircraft, which had a definite ability to attack ships.”
“The Spratlys are very far from Sanya, and at that time we also lacked airfields in the Paracels. Flying from the nearest airfield, Lingshui [on Hainan Island], our aircraft only had loiter time of 4-5 minutes; in such a short time, they could not solve problems before they had to return, or they would run out of fuel. So we felt deeply that China must have an aircraft carrier: If during the Johnson South Reef Skirmish, we had our own [air] cover from a nearby aircraft carrier, we would simply not have had to fear Vietnam’s air force. Now that the Spratlys have airfields, it is much more convenient. If China’s aircraft carrier enters service relatively soon, and training is well-established, this will solve a major problem. We will seize air superiority; Vietnamese aircraft will not dare to take off.”
Not quite just the gentle protection of fish and wildlife.
Lingering further in the background is the way in which this new carrier may complicate American strategic views on the region – not least for the way the Chinese will eventually move to combined, coordinated military theatre capabilities that will be able to draw on carrier-based aircraft, land-based aircraft and other naval resources. Over time, would the Chinese begin to contemplate the use of this carrier’s force projection as a way of interposing against heretofore relatively unimpeded movements through the Taiwan Straits -- or in other sea littorals of the nations fronting on the South China Sea – or beyond? And, as the Chinese develop combined capabilities from the operation of the Liaoning and its associated aircraft, will they eventually move towards construction of additional carriers to allow them to project military capabilities further into the reaches of the Western Pacific?
There is a school of thought that argues the era of the carrier battle group has passed, just as the carrier had superseded the hegemony of the battleship – following the game-changing victory by the Americans over the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in mid-1942. Midway is justly known for the fact the two naval forces were never in sight of each other and the fight was entirely carried out by duelling air squadrons that attacked the respective carriers.
Some observers argue that the NATO-led attacks on Qaddafi’s Libya as part of the UN-sponsored “no fly zone” from land bases demonstrated the futility of those large, ultra-expensive carrier battle groups. Others note that forces like nuclear submarines can’t be rearmed easily at sea or provide surveillance of where mobile targets are. Moreover, land-based aircraft lack easy, fast, flexible redeployments to new bases in different nations. While nukes give a country’s military “cachet,” the carrier gives them real “capability”.
Current U.S. nuclear-powered carriers, for example, can easily circle the globe without refuelling and can project their force omni-directionally at any given time, from a significant distance apart from the actual arena of conflict. This latter capacity could be extremely important, for example, if the Iranians attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz for outbound oil shipments, either by the deployment of large numbers of small, fast patrol boats or via mine-laying operations.
With the commissioning of their new carrier, China seems to have embraced the same strategic ideal of carrier utility. The Americans currently have more carriers than the rest of the world’s forces combined and theirs are significantly larger than those of other nations. Most of those carriers are smaller ships equipped with a similarly smaller component of aircraft and/or attack helicopters.
The Chinese now clearly accept the idea that they too have the kinds of disputes and interests in force projection that “float the boats” of carrier advocates and defense strategists in the U.S., UK, France, India and the other nations that have accepted the burden of the tremendous cost and technical skills required to operate carrier forces in the 21st century. DM
For further reading, see:
The Inevitable Superpower Why China’s Dominance Is a Sure Thing, article by Arvind Subramanian at Foreign Affairs;
Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China's Economic Dominance, description of Subramanian’s book at the PIIE.com;
China boosts military might with first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning at Global Post;
Photo: China's first aircraft carrier, which was renovated from an old aircraft carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, is seen docked at Dalian Port, in Dalian, Liaoning province September 22, 2012. Picture taken September 22, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer