Tuesday, December 30, 2008

China Considers an Aircraft Carrier

The Chinese are considering constructing and operating an aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier, you say? You mean they don't have one? The big, bad, fearful Chinese don't even have ONE? Nope. Not one. We have eleven.

Building and operating aircraft carriers--especially nuclear powered ones--is a tough business. Creating a force of pilots proficient in carrier take-offs (and more importantly, landings) is quite another thing altogether. The Soviets tried and failed. The French have given it a go, and the Brits have operated STOVL (short take off vertical launch) carriers for years (though STOVL carriers can accommodate smaller planes with shorter legs and less carry).

Read what the Chinese defense ministry official says. He refers twice to the carrier as a "symbol". We don't use carriers to protect our nation's maritime security and safeguard its sovereignty--we use aircraft carriers to project power--to kill people and wreck things far from our shores so that we don't have people killing people and wrecking things within our shores. If the Chinese wished to protect their maritime security and sovereignty, they'd build a bunch of frigates and corvettes and essentially trick-out its Coast Guard. But that's not what they are doing.

The question of China's naval buildup is the $64,000 question among US naval strategists. Are they building a Navy to create regional dominance and a winning hand in a Taiwan conflict, or are they building a Navy to challenge US worldwide naval dominance as Chinese interests become more far flung? Those who see the Chinese buildup of submarines suggest that they are seeking to create a Navy capable of ensuring victory in Taiwan, as the subs main role would be in taking OUR carriers out. Still others see the Chinese buildup of surface ships (and now the carrier) as a sign that they are seeking to protect their widely spaced interests throughout the world, and that their recent deployment of a surface action group to participate in the anti-piracy effort off the Somali coast is a sign of this impulse (which makes their Navy begin to look a lot more like ours--something naval strategists find troubling).

What's really going on here? A couple of things. China is a nation growing in economic, political, and military clout. It is a maritime nation; though this history had long been suppressed, China's emergence as a huge exporter has brought with it a growing sense of the importance of maritime issues. Throughout modern history (and for the sake of argument, I'll point to the rise of the modern nation-state as the start of modern history), nations on the rise BUILD NAVIES. This is a very predictable phenomenon. China's maritime/military aims seem to me to be fairly modest and sensible (from a Chinese perspective). They seek first to be the major naval power in Asia, which is unsurprising given their size, wealth, and influence. The problem here is that the current naval power in Asia is.....the United States.

Next, they seek to build a Navy capable of creating the impression that they can take Taiwan. Note my choice of words. I do not think they are building a Navy to take Taiwan, because I do not think the Chinese want to risk what would come from that act. No, they are building a Navy that gives the US and Taiwan the impression that this is their intent. This could lead to A) a naval arms race in Asia (signs of which are appearing) or B) a continued weakening in the US/Taiwan link, incentivizing the Taiwanese to seek a peaceful Hong-Kong like reunification.

Finally, they are building a Navy to protect their interests around the world--not all around the world at one time (like ours can, to a degree), but where around the world they think they need it. They are creating a Navy with which they would be able to apply considerable and punishing power for a short period of time in a limited geographic area. Let the US continue to spend its money on a world-wide police-force kind of Navy upon which the rest of the world can be free-riders--China's Navy will be for the protection of CHINESE interests.

What does this mean for the US? It means we'll increasingly operate with and around Chinese vessels, in a variety of locations around the globe. It means there will be opportunities to cooperate with the Chinese in areas of mutual concern (piracy), but it also means there will be more opportunity for friction where our interests are less aligned. It means the Chinese are growing up as a nation, and they'll have to be treated as a maritime force with which to be reckoned, something the US Navy has not had to deal with since the demise of the Soviet Union.

1 comment:

Mudge said...

I've had some discussions with some smart people who have opined that China may be taking a rather Sun Tsuian approach in their apparent intractability on Taiwan. That they are using Taiwan as a distractor for what they would really seek to militarily destroy. Consider this, what would China really gain in lobbing missiles into Taiwan and militarily taking control of the wreckage? I suspect even more unrest in mainland China (on the increase since the economic down turn after a brief dramatic upturn there) given how many have close relatives in Taiwan. Destruction of one of their more productive economic regions. And, as you have indicated, some pretty significant international challenges (ranging from utterly scathing UN resolutions...okay, so PRC vetoes that one...to economic sanctions...those could hurt but they have lived for centuries within their own borders...and they are a maoist patient people...to military retribution...maybe...not sure we really have the stomach. So, why destroy Taiwan just to make a point that if you are Chinese and you wish to break away you will die? I think it is unnecessary. So why practice attacking an island in their proximity? What if there was a significant economic competitor in their region? What if it were an island and what if it were populated by a people they utterly despised??? While the world stays glued to Taiwan, I just wonder how much of this is designed to crush Japan. Watching Russia crush Georgia without so much more than a "Hey, stop doing that" from the US must give them some sense that maybe the great protector really is too thinly spread. And we can say what we want about China's relatively less far reaching Navy. What they have is large numbers, an unwavering willingness and some pretty nasty weapons that could make such a fight a particularly nasty one. And having the ability to win is far less important, I believe, than having the will to win. Given our ability to win in Iraq, Somalia and Viet Nam to name some particularly low tech challenges, but our lack of will to win, I think the Chinese (and Al Quaida, and Venezuela, et al) have figured out that this is an important achilles heal in the USA. And it remains one of my biggest single reasons for detesting the Democratic leadership in Congress. They are sending what I believe to be very dangerous strategic messages to those who seek to challenge our international standing.

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