Asian Powers’ Carrier Craze


Aircraft carriers have become the ultimate accessory for Asia’s aspiring powers. If you have one – or, even better, a collection – then you’re in the big-power club; if you don’t, you’re still just toiling in the minor leagues of world affairs. Even so, the regional carrier competition has reached a new level of intensity of late, as Japan, India and China (kind of) unveiled new ships within days of each other.

China only half counts because it wasn’t a complete aircraft carrier that came to light in a series of long-lens photos splashed across the wonkier parts of the internet; rather, it was a section of one under construction at a Shanghainese shipyard. But it was still an important revelation – proof that China’s first indigenous carrier is taking shape and that PLA Navy commanders are getting closer to realising their own briny version of the China Dream, namely a fleet of carriers capable of projecting power around the world.

China already has one carrier, the Liaoning, but it’s an old ship originally built by the Soviet Union. Having a brand new carrier, and most importantly one you constructed yourself, bestows a whole new level of prestige.

India has generally struggled to keep pace with China’s rapid military modernisation, but in terms of aircraft carriers it actually has its nose in front. The Indians launched their first indigenous carrier, INS Vikrant, last week. For all the national fanfare, the ship is far from complete, and won’t enter active service for at least five years.

No matter: India should retain its naval edge over China, at least for now (since no one really knows how many carriers Beijing ultimately plans to build). New Delhi already has one active carrier, an ancient ex-Royal Navy ship, while a second, a one-time Soviet carrier similar to China’s, should be in the Indian Navy’s hands by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Japan’s biggest warship in seven decades was being launched in Yokohama – the helicopter carrier Izumo, the third in a series of four such light carriers that Tokyo currently plans to build. Unlike the Chinese and Indian carriers, Izumo is not designed as a floating airstrip for fighter jets; it has a less-threatening complement of 14 helicopters instead.

Out of the three, Japan’s approach is the most elegant. Operating in a peacetime, post-Fukushima world, Izumo’s most important mission will be disaster relief: it has a huge cargo hold in which to transport emergency supplies, and the helicopters with which to deliver them to inaccessible, stricken areas. In peacetime mode, Izumo also operates well within the confines of Japan’s pacifist constitution.

However, humanitarian assistance is hardly the only purpose of what is, after all, a military vessel. Izumo’s job is ultimately to help Japan control the seas and the Japanese military could quite easily convert her into a much more potent war-fighter than she already is. With some modifications, Izumo should be able to accommodate the short take-off F-35 fighter jets which Japan is currently buying from the U.S. (though Tokyo has repeatedly insisted that it has no plans to do this). Its cargo bays could be adapted to house troops, while its weapons suite could be enhanced to pack more of an offensive punch.

Japan, rather like the rest of us, is waiting to see how the cards fall before arming up its new carriers.

Nor is China the only country it has to worry about: Russia, with which Tokyo also has an acrimonious territorial dispute, is busy restocking its armed forces as well, and will shortly start building at least two new aircraft carriers to add to the single flat-top it has currently.

In theory, the equilibrium should be preserved so long as these countries’ military expansion plans keep pace with one another. China, India, Japan and Russia all appear to be aiming for a fleet of two to four operational carriers by the 2020s, and so while we might reasonably characterise what they are doing as an arms race, at least no single player looks like getting too far ahead of the rest of the pack. Remember also that this particular race already has a front runner who left the others for dust a long time ago, namely the U.S. Navy, with its 10 super-carriers, and numerous other light carriers besides.

Asia’s seas are going to get very crowded, especially when you factor in all the new naval ships and submarines which other countries in the region – including Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam – are acquiring, too. There is some comfort, at least, in the fact that the business of building aircraft carriers is as much about boosting national pride as about boosting real military power.

You can hardly blame a government for seeking to create the impression of great power, both to gain respect abroad and to puff out chests at home. The only danger is that some of Asia’s leaders might start to believe their own hype.

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

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