09 November 2007

As Military Balks, Chinese Public Pushes for Aircraft Carriers

Tim Johnson, As Military Balks, Chinese Public Pushes for Aircraft Carriers,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8 November 2007.

…China remains the only major global power without aircraft carriers in its fleet. For years, military leaders have weighed the pride that such vessels would bring the nation with the costs and complexity of operating the giant ships, continually postponing a decision. But now public sentiment is running strongly in favor of launching a program to build aircraft carriers, and some military experts say construction may be inevitable.

“Actually it has almost been decided that the Chinese navy will build carriers,” said Xu Guangyu, an analyst and the director of the government-backed China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

China’s military has grown at double-digit rates for nearly two decades and now wields supersonic missiles and nuclear submarines. When it comes to aircraft carriers, though, it’s not so much military leaders voicing an operational need as an impatient public demanding construction, experts said.

“There’s a feeling among the Chinese public that their nation is a great power, and great powers have aircraft carriers,” said Andrew S. Erickson, a civilian scholar at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the Naval War College in Rhode Island. “We’ve seen grass-roots campaigns that say, ‘Everyone contribute some money so we can have an aircraft carrier.’” …

Experts say a host of problems awaits China in mastering the technique of bringing in jet fighters with heavy landing gear and building the catapults and large elevators needed in aircraft carriers. Pilots often are killed and aircraft lost during training.

Opponents within China’s military argue that submarines and mines can make carriers vulnerable, turning them into virtual “floating coffins.” They say carrier deployment would alarm China’s neighbors and alter the strategic equation in East Asia. …

A turning point came with a devastating tsunami in 2004, when the U.S. carrier Abraham Lincoln sailed quickly to Indonesia, providing crucial relief. China saw that carriers could play a valuable diplomatic and humanitarian role.

Erickson, the Naval War College expert, said China’s military leaders might opt for smaller ships with deck-top platforms in the future.

“It’s not Nimitz-class or nothing,” Erickson said, referring to the huge U.S. carriers. “I think we can expect that China may experiment with different types of platforms.” …