14 September 2010

Harmonious Ocean? Chinese Aircraft Carriers and the Australian-U.S. Alliance

John Frewen,Harmonious Ocean? Chinese Aircraft Carriers and the Australian-U.S. Alliance,” Joint Force Quarterly 59, 4th Quarter (October 2010), pp. 68-74.

Brigadier General John Frewen, Australian Army, wrote this essay while a student at the U.S. Army War College. It won the 2010 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition.

In March 2009, China’s Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, announced that China planned to equip the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with two conventional aircraft carriers by 2015. China has not previously pursued this capability formally. Unconfirmed media reports suggest that China will possibly also seek two additional nuclear-powered carriers by 2020. China justifies the procurement of carriers as logical for a nation of its size and economic influence, and necessary to defend its interests. For the Chinese people, carriers will be the jewels in the crown of a powerful navy, one befitting China’s rising great nation status.

Having shaken off subjugation by foreign powers during the 18th and 19th centuries, China is moving rapidly toward the center of the international stage. After 30 years of remarkable economic growth and a reshaping of the world’s economic landscape in its favor, China is poised to step into a new, possibly global, era. Proud of its culture, traditions, and rising international status, China views the next 15 to 20 years as a “strategic window of opportunity”—a time for “national revitalization through continued economic, social and military development.”

China’s emerging role in global affairs is, as yet, uncertain. The nation has unresolved historical and domestic issues that color its strategic judgments and make its intentions difficult to predict. It is also possible that China is growing and changing in ways the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot control or predict. Accompanying rapid economic growth are burgeoning maritime trade and energy requirements, a growing middle class, and an increase in nationalism. In addition to these challenges, the CCP faces domestic poverty, rising unemployment, criticism of its own performance, a leadership transition in 2012, and a range of separatist movements.

Of all of these, the CCP’s uneasy social contract with its increasingly affluent middle class is most notable. If the CCP is to retain its one-party rule, it must continue to deliver increasing prosperity and individual convenience, in part by ensuring China’s access to trade and resources, particularly oil. Chinese strategists are acutely aware that they could do little in response if the United States chose tomorrow to constrict China’s maritime access to oil, minerals, and markets. China’s concern for its strategic sea lanes, and a sense that great nations have great navies, has drawn it to a carrier force of its own.

The appearance of the first Chinese aircraft carrier in the Pacific will resonate throughout the region and change the current dynamic. In Australia’s case, the carriers present a particular conundrum. Australia’s defense and security policy has been underpinned by its traditional friendship and alliance with the United States since World War II. However, since 2007, China has become Australia’s primary trading partner. Any future tensions or conflict between the United States and China in the Pacific could place Australia in a potentially invidious position— torn between security and trade.

This article discusses what Chinese carriers might mean to the Asia-Pacific region and the implications for Australia’s longstanding alliance with the United States, particularly in the event of escalating U.S.-China maritime tensions. Short of open conflict, the greatest risk presented by Chinese carriers is a self-fulfilling prophecy of a U.S.-China cold war. If conflict rather than accommodation is to mark China’s rise, Australia must weigh the relative benefits of its U.S. alliance against other alternatives—such as neutrality or defense self-sufficiency—before being caught in a conflict contrary to its long-term national interests. …