22 August 2011

William Choong, Straits Times: “Reasons to Fear China’s Aircraft Carrier”

William Choong,Reasons to Fear China’s Aircraft Carrier,” Straits Times, 19 August 2011.

Last week, China said it had deployed its first aircraft carrier for an inaugural sea trial. Speaking at a Chinese Defence Ministry briefing last month, Colonel Geng Yansheng stressed that the carrier would be used for “research, experiment and training” and would not affect China’s defensive naval strategy.

Across the region, however, the deployment has triggered concern. Japan, for example, has asked Beijing to explain the rationale behind the carrier, given that the warship is “highly manoeuvrable and offensive.”

As Chinese officials have stressed repeatedly, China has every right to acquire a carrier. Col Geng said that China’s long coastline and vast expanse of territorial waters necessitated such a warship.

For many Chinese, the carrier also represents a prestige acquisition. … A full-fledged carrier battle group requires a carrier and an escort force of attack submarines, cruisers and destroyers. Landing fast-moving fighter aircraft on a carrier flight deck is a complicated task that requires years of training.

“China’s ‘starter carrier’ is of very limited military utility, and will primarily serve to confer prestige on a rising great power, to help the military master basic procedures, and to project a bit of power,” wrote Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson at China Sign Post, a website that scours first-hand Chinese sources.

That said, concerns… centre on the context of China’s carrier development and its current behaviour.

First, the acquisition has been a tad disingenuous. When it was purchased in 1998, Beijing said that the carrier would be a “floating casino” …

Second, the acquisition cannot be divorced from regional perceptions about China’s recent assertive behaviour over the South China Sea. … Writing last week, PLA Daily correspondent Guo Jianyue added to the well of suspicion by saying that the carrier could be used to settle territorial disputes.

Third, China has argued that carriers could be used for “soft power” missions such as humanitarian assistance. … But one cannot run away from the fact that carriers – particularly those with fixed-wing aircraft – are inherently offensive platforms.

Fourth, China’s contention that the carrier is part of its defensive strategy should be taken with a pinch of salt. … China’s attack on Vietnam in 1979, and its wars against India and the former Soviet Union in 1962 and 1969 respectively were all labelled ‘self-defence counter-attacks’ or ziwei fanji.

Lastly, Mr Guo’s contention that the carrier could be used to settle territorial disputes represents official thinking, given that the PLA Daily is a state-run paper. Mr Guo argues that the “deterrent of the carrier is usually larger than its practical effectiveness” and that the “political significance of building aircraft carriers is greater than its military significance.”

Again, such an argument derives from China’s interpretation of traditional Western concepts of deterrence and compellence, which entail the use of coercion to get other countries to bend to one’s will. As Mr Guo argues, the carrier could be used in disputes over the South China Sea. But like nuclear weapons, its potency does not derive from its actual use, but the threat of use. …

In short, there is little reason to fear China’s carrier development for now. In the long run, however, what China uses the carrier for will be a source of concern.

For coverage of the ex-Varyag’s sea trials, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China Realizes Carrier Dream,” The Diplomat, 10 August 2011.

For the longer analysis on which that post is based, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s ‘Starter Carrier’ Goes to Sea,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 43 (9 August 2011).

For an assessment of the larger implications of China’s deck aviation development, see Abraham M. Denmark, Andrew S. Erickson, and Gabriel Collins, “Should We Be Afraid of China’s New Aircraft Carrier? Not yet.,” Foreign Policy, 27 June 2011.

For operational aspects of China’s first carrier-capable aircraft, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “Flying Shark” Gaining Altitude: How might new J-15 strike fighter improve China’s maritime air warfare ability?,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 38 (7 June 2011).

For drivers and constraints concerning Chinese deck aviation, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “The ‘Flying Shark’ Prepares to Roam the Seas: Strategic pros and cons of China’s aircraft carrier program,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 35 (18 May 2011).

For relevant defense industrial factors, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “LNG Carriers to Aircraft Carriers? Assessing the potential for crossover between civilian and military shipbuilding in China,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 12 (18 December 2010).

For an early assessment of Chinese aircraft carrier options, see Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Dilemma,” Naval War College Review, 59. 4 (Autumn 2006): 13-45.