05 December 2011 ~ 7 Comments

“Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps: Alternatives and Implications”–Lead Article in Winter 2012 Naval War College Review

Andrew S. Erickson, Abraham M. Denmark, and Gabriel Collins, Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps: Alternatives and Implications,” Naval War College Review, 65.1 (Winter 2012): 14-54.

Just as a newlywed couple wants a “starter home,” a new great power wants a “starter carrier.” China’s navy has finally realized its longtime dream of obtaining an aircraft carrier and sending it to sea. This is the first step in a long journey that will change China’s navy and how it relates to the world.

At 5:40 AM local time on Wednesday, 10 August 2011, more than eighty years after the idea was originally proposed, China’s first carrier disappeared into the fog under tight security from Dalian harbor’s Xianglujiao Port, in northeast Liaoning Province, to begin sea trials in the Bohai and northern Yellow Seas. This was yet another coming-out party for China as a great power on the rise. Upon its launch, the nation burst with patriotic pride over the achievement. Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of the China Society of Military Sciences, declared, “Well begun is half done. . . . [T]he effect of having something is completely different from the effect of having nothing.” Plans are under way to commemorate this new era of Chinese sea power, and to boost the economy further in the process. Tianjin, one of the country’s four municipalities, plans to do its part in October 2011 by opening China’s first aircraft carrier–themed hotel, based on Kiev, once the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s flagship and now the centerpiece of the Tianjin Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park. A Chinese flagship as capable as Kiev once was remains far away, but Beijing has taken the first step and is already reaping added influence at home and abroad.

Before foreign strategists start hyperventilating about the “beginning of the end,” however, a deep breath is needed. China’s initial carrier foray followed a six-year refit and lasted only four days. China’s starter carrier—a vessel originally purchased incomplete from Ukraine in 1998—is of very limited military utility; it will serve primarily to confer prestige on a rising great power, help the Chinese military master basic procedures of naval airpower, and project a bit of military power—perhaps especially against the smaller neighbors on the periphery of the South China Sea. This is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning. To realize its ambitions for the future, China had to start somewhere.

Late in 2010, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the father of China’s modern navy, passed away. Liu had sought to build China’s navy first into a “green water” force and thereafter, eventually, into a “blue water” navy capable of projecting power regionally, though not globally. He insisted that he was not China’s Alfred Thayer Mahan, but his concept of “Near Seas defense” was roughly comparable to Mahan’s views on U.S. naval strategic requirements (i.e., dominance of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Panama, and Hawaii). The key to the realization of Liu’s vision was an aircraft carrier, and Liu reportedly vowed in 1987, “I will not die with my eyes closed if I do not see a Chinese aircraft carrier in front of me.” Admiral Liu’s eyes can close now.

Much of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the Asia-watching strategic community in the United States, is hotly debating the implications of Chinese aircraft carrier development. Admiral Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said in April 2011 that he was “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.” Australian brigadier general John Frewen contends, “The unintended consequences of Chinese carriers pose the greatest threat to regional harmony in the decades ahead.” Former director of Defense Intelligence Headquarters in the Japan Defense Agency Admiral Fumio Ota, JMSDF (Ret.), asserts, “The trials of China’s first aircraft carrier . . . mark the beginning of a major transition in naval doctrine. . . . Aircraft carriers will provide Beijing with tremendous capabilities and flexibility. . . . [A] Chinese carrier could pose a serious threat to Japanese territorial integrity. . . . China’s new aircraft carrier increases its tactical abilities and the chances of a strategic overreach. Other countries in the region should be worried.”

Yet while the Asia-Pacific region is hotly debating the implications of China’s aircraft carrier, there should be little surprise that a Chinese aircraft carrier has finally set sail. Indeed, what is most surprising about China’s aircraft carrier program is that it took this long to come to fruition. Given the discussions about an aircraft carrier that have percolated in China’s strategic community for decades, it should have been clear to the entire region that this was a long time coming. …