Much Ado About An Aircraft Carrier

For Beijing, it seems that no year is complete without floating the idea of adding an aircraft carrier or three to its fleet. On Dec. 23, 2008, it was again time to go back to the future when Col. Huang Xueping, a mainland Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman, stated that the People’s Liberation Army Navy would “seriously consider” building its first flattop.

Not one to stray far from a well-worn script, Huang spoke of an aircraft carrier being a “symbol of a country’s overall national strength as well as the competitiveness of its naval force.” He explained that a flattop would guarantee mainland China’s maritime security and sovereignty, but gave no timetable for launching such a vessel.

As if on cue, the international media jumped all over Huang’s announcement, with the usual suspect defense analysts treating the aircraft carrier’s launch as a fait accompli. But U.S. Navy experts remain skeptical, unsure as to whether the mainland Chinese could commission such a vessel before 2020 due to the enormity of this challenge.

For over two decades, reports emanating from the Middle Kingdom have tipped the communist leadership’s hand on the subject of creating an aircraft carrier force as part of a drive to achieve blue-water naval capability. In 1982, the PLAN initiated a feasibility study on the design and construction of flattops. Three years later, an Australian carrier was acquired for scrap, with PLAN naval architects and engineers giving the vessel a thorough going over before its landing deck was removed and retained intact for pilot training.

Throughout the 1990s rumors continued to swirl linking the mainland with aircraft carrier purchases from France and Spain, and homegrown construction projects. By 2000, Beijing had acquired three Soviet Union-era flattops. Two of the vessels became floating tourist attractions, but according to Jane’s Navy International, the third underwent a program of refurbishment and was named “Shi Lang” after the Ching dynasty (1644-1911) general who claimed Taiwan in 1683. However, at the end of 2008, the carrier was still lying idle in a Dalian dry dock in Liaoning Province.

The reason why many believe Beijing’s most recent aircraft carrier announcement appears to carry more weight this time is its coinciding with the deployment of a PLAN task force on active duty beyond the Pacific Ocean. The departure Dec. 26, 2008 of two destroyers and a supply ship to join the multinational anti-piracy fleet patrolling off the Horn of Africa represents a new phase of PLAN operations, which now extends beyond defending mainland coastal waters and impeding U.S. military intervention in the event of a conflict involving Taiwan.

But Beijing’s participation in this mission should come as no surprise and does not confirm a greater commitment to the construction of an aircraft carrier. As a growing stakeholder in the world order, it is only logical that mainland China shoulders its fair share of backing up the United States in policing the world’s shipping lanes. With around 10 percent of the mainland’s gross national product moved by sea, and seven of the world’s 20 largest ports situated on its coastline, Beijing’s newfound naval activism benefits its economy and goes someway toward addressing shared global security challenges.

One long-standing school of thought holds that if the mainland acquires flattop capability, strategic equations in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea will be altered. Indeed, it is difficult to deny that a PLAN aircraft carrier would set alarm bells ringing throughout East Asia, especially in Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul and Southeast Asian capitals. This development could trigger a regional arms race and cause a dangerous destabilization of existing security relations. Moreover, U.S. naval policy in the Asia-Pacific region would also be affected.

The challenge would be for Beijing to reassure its neighbors that such a vessel does not signal its intention to settle territorial disputes by force. Accordingly, the region’s governments would need time to adjust policy, much in the same way they have done so to accommodate the mainland’s unrelenting military buildup.

There is little argument that Beijing’s piecemeal acquisition of aircraft carrier technology over the years has probably put it in a position where constructing an indigenous flattop is possible. As the world’s largest shipbuilder after South Korea and Japan, the vast array of skills and technology required for such a project have already been bought, borrowed or stolen from foreign suppliers.

But the real question is whether Beijing has the political will and economic capability to tackle the astronomical logistical and financial costs associated with such a project. With the global economic crisis beginning to bite hard on the mainland, there are very few who believe the communist leadership is prepared to risk the fiscal consequences of such an ambitious shipbuilding program. So for now, it is a safe bet that the mainland’s dream of joining fellow permanent U.N. Security Council members in possessing an operational aircraft carrier will remain just that for some time to come–a dream.

Jean Brisebois is a free-lance writer based in Montreal, Canada.

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