Seeing Through China’s Aircraft Carrier?

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Does an emerging super power require an aircraft carrier to support this rise? This question engages the minds of many as China unveiled its plans for floating an aircraft deck. Chinese scholars routinely dismiss such reports in the Western media as speculation, of fanning a, “China threat” theory. There are many protagonists of the China threat theory and Beijing has a range of scholars to counter the red herrings thrown by this school. The Chinese defence budget is the usual whipping boy of the global strategic community. The eagerly awaited Pentagon report on China will be with us in a few days from now and we will get more inputs in the days ahead. Whether it will address China’s aircraft carrier or not remains to be seen but a rational enquiry of this question may be of interest for it will provide the raison de etre, of the People’s Liberation Army’s modernisation thought process.

The focus of China’s military modernization at present is to gain a military edge against Taiwan by 2010 as per Jane’s Defence Weekly. Towards this end, the Chinese are developing the Navy, Missiles and air force. The build up is primarily through military cooperation with Russia. Thus next in the line are said to be Sukhoi Su-33 multi-role fighter aircraft: a carrier version of the Su-27 fighter. Moves of the PLA Naval Air force to establish a combat air wing are also quite advanced. The Chinese aviation industry is also being spurred to produce fighters, surveillance and early warning aircraft. China is also linking this effort with development of the civil aviation industry with focus on heavy lift aircraft. Given China’s geographical extent and population, this makes eminent sense, as it would facilitate move of large number of personnel military and civil across the country.

The most debated Chinese project however remains that of building the aircraft carrier. A report in South Korean media indicated in March that China was expected to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the 90000-ton class, which will enter service in 2020.

Chinese scholars and officials such as Huang Qiang, a spokesman for the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence of China (CSTIND) maintain that while, China is capable of building an aircraft carrier Chinese philosophy is of, “strategic active defence and, even when it owns aircraft carriers, it will definitely not intrude into or occupy any other nation or resort to force with the use of carrier vessel,” This may provide some pointers to Beijing’s thinking on the subject while others may call it just suave perception management.

A country with a policy of active defence does not in any case needs an offensive weapon system as an aircraft carrier. Other researchers as Li Jie of the Institute of Naval Military Academy indicate that “To build an aircraft carrier is not merely an “aircraft carrier” issue but poses an image of a nation, apart from producing a tremendous deterrent” though he goes on to add that this is not feasible technologically. The Chinese view of, ‘prestige’ can be evident with even Thailand possessing an aircraft carrier in the ASEAN region.

The fact is that while China does not feel the necessity of an aircraft carrier at present, Beijing’s moves to acquire bases across the Indian Ocean periphery denotes that some day it may base its naval fleet on a carrier. The increased focus on energy security is another major factor in this decision to have a carrier, which will enable it to dominate the South China Sea and other claim areas some of which are reported to be having major deposits of gas. China may also like to keep open options for power projection in the future, including security of sea lines of trade, as a major portion of Chinese energy resources come through the Malacca and other narrow water channels a long way from West Asia.

However, what should be of concern is that after assiduously denying the PLA Navy the rights to build an aircraft carrier, the Central Military Commission has finally given the go-ahead. Thus, it would be seen that it is not merely a question of enhancing naval systems but a whole new attitude and a possible shift in national policy. An aircraft carrier is no longer a question of prestige but a possible intent to assert itself in the South China Seas and beyond which is behind China’s strategic shift. What ever it is, Beijing will exercise its sovereign rights but probably much more overtly than the anti satellite tests that shocked us.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.