01 February 2010

China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions: An Update

Nan Li and Christopher Weuve, China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions: An Update,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 12-31.

This article will address two major analytical questions. First, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for China to acquire aircraft carriers? Second, what are the major implications if China does acquire aircraft carriers?

Existing analyses on China’s aircraft carrier ambitions are quite insightful but also somewhat inadequate and must therefore be updated. Some, for instance, argue that with the advent of the Taiwan issue as China’s top threat priority by late 1996 and the retirement of Liu Huaqing as vice chair of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) in 1997, aircraft carriers are no longer considered vital. In that view, China does not require aircraft carriers to capture sea and air superiority in a war over Taiwan, and China’s most powerful carrier proponent (Liu) can no longer influence relevant decision making. Other scholars suggest that China may well acquire small-deck aviation platforms, such as helicopter carriers, to fulfill secondary security missions. These missions include naval diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and antisubmarine warfare. The present authors conclude, however, that China’s aircraft carrier ambitions may be larger than the current literature has predicted. Moreover, the major implications of China’s acquiring aircraft carriers may need to be explored more carefully in order to inform appropriate reactions on the part of the United States and other Asia-Pacific naval powers.

This article updates major changes in the four major conditions that are necessary and would be largely sufficient for China to acquire aircraft carriers: leadership endorsement, financial affordability, a relatively concise naval strategy that defines the missions of carrier operations, and availability of requisite technologies. We argue that in spite of some unresolved issues, these changes suggest that China is likely to acquire medium-sized aircraft carriers in the medium term for “near seas” missions and for gaining operational experience, so that it can acquire large carriers for “far seas” operations in the long term.

These four major conditions, or variables, can be either dependent or independent, depending on circumstances. Generally speaking, central leadership endorsement of the idea of acquiring aircraft carriers may depend on whether the required money and technologies are available and whether an appropriate naval strategy is formulated. There are some circumstances, however, in which central leadership endorsement may in fact make money and technologies more readily available and appropriate strategy more forthcoming. Because of such variation in the relationship among these four major conditions (variables), each will be discussed separately.

The article has five sections. The first four examine changes in the four major conditions of leadership endorsement, financial affordability, appropriate naval strategy, and requisite technologies. The concluding section discusses the major implications if China actually acquires aircraft carriers. …