The apparent confirmation that China is building its second (and first indigenous) aircraft carrier has caused quiet alarm. But it’s worth taking a ‘first principles’ look at this development, examining what China will be able to do with its new aircraft carriers. There are important limits on what Beijing would be likely to achieve with carrier-based projection of air power. But the move will provide Beijing with the ability to be more assertive, and tells us a lot about China’s sense of its role in the region.
To first get a sense of what this means for China’s future, the way the US has used their carriers in recent decades is a good place to start. Since WWII, American carriers have supported operations in larger regional wars, including Korea and Vietnam, where there was significant enemy opposition to air operations although not a huge threat to the carriers themselves. They formed an important part of the ability of the US to project hard power into heavily contested spaces. More recently they’ve been used to project air power against countries that don’t possess much in the way of either air defence and or an A2AD capability to pose a significant risk to the carriers.
They’re also been used as symbols (for domestic and international audiences) of US military power, including for intimidation. The deployment of the USS Independence and USS Nimitz in the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis is a good example. Part of the value of carriers for the United States has been the control they give Washington over escalation in these kinds of situations; the idea is that anyone who attacks as valuable an asset as a US carrier should expect a significant response.
China won’t be much different. Their carriers will be symbols of power, and will give China coercive ability against weaker states, but not much leverage against a peer competitor. Operating against major naval powers such as the US or Japan will come with a serious risk to the carrier itself—an important consideration because of the high cost and small numbers of carriers. The most likely state of affairs for Asia’s near future is that both the US and China will possess sufficient anti-ship capabilities to make carrier operations a dicey proposition for the other.
And, on current trends, other important players in Asia (including Japan and the ROK) will also find it increasingly easy to conduct sea-denial operations, and correspondingly difficult to establish sea control. The easier the target is to see and hit, the harder it’ll be to keep it safe. And targets at sea don’t get much more visible than an aircraft carrier. Carrier battle groups are likely to be less and less able to survive concerted efforts to sink them. The risks will come from novel technologies like ballistic and hypersonic systems, but also from well-established systems like submarines, aircraft, and ‘traditional’ forms of anti-ship missiles.
Like American carriers have, China’s would be able to conduct operations or exert influence against non-peers—for example, the intimidation of China’s neighbours in the South China Sea (the Philippines for example), or even the Pacific or Indian Ocean. But if such operations turned kinetic, that might draw a strong response from the US, again raising the question of vulnerability of the platform itself.
That’s not to say that the carriers don’t carry hard-power value. There are at least two credible reasons to have them. First, Beijing could conduct operations which would be unlikely to draw a response from the United States, but which would require an aircraft carrier; for example interventions in Africa requiring air-power. Although China might wish to protect its supply of resources from far-flung places just as the US has, it’s hard to see the capacity to do that being worth the cost of five new carrier battle groups to Beijing (it’s an important question for other carrier operators too). Second, carriers will give Beijing a measure of escalation control. If a PLAN carrier group is parked off the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands the way that the US did in the Taiwan Straits—how would Washington and Tokyo respond? By committing such a valuable asset to a given situation, Beijing could raise the stakes for any adversaries, by essentially signalling a willingness to escalate. The carrier doesn’t need to be invulnerable for this approach to work.
A Chinese carrier capability will make it even harder to push Beijing around because it raises the stakes of trying to put China back in its box. But escalation in North East Asia could well move from the conventional to the nuclear domain frighteningly quickly. It’s a big topic for another time, but if China is willing to up the stakes in a conventional confrontation, it would make sense for Beijing to provide itself with a more robust capacity to respond to American nuclear dominance as well.
So for those of us in Asia, the kinetic operations China would be likely to undertake with its carriers shouldn’t be particularly concerning, at least as long as the US is around. But what should weigh on the mind of American (and Australian and Japanese) strategists is what it tells us about lack of willingness to acquiesce to American desires for a US-led future in Asia—and the complexity that a further growth in Chinese power will bring to any future crisis management. Five carrier groups doesn’t look like a fleet for a nation comfortable with playing second fiddle.
Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.