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article imageOp-Ed: China’s carriers: A catalyst for trouble?

By Paul Wallis     Apr 30, 2017 in World
Sydney - China’s first domestically built carrier is believed to be the beginning of a major drive by the Chinese navy to deliver a major global presence and projection of power. The problems could start a lot closer to home.
China’s new carriers will include 5-6 bigger fleet carriers, the more familiar fleet flattop carriers of the class used by the US Navy. This number of carriers represents a massive increase in the reach and capabilities of the Chinese navy.
The Chinese government states that this rather conspicuously large upscaling is part of the development of modern defence capabilities and to reflect its new role in the world. There is some truth in that, and it’s consistent with previous Chinese naval building programs.
The Chinese navy has developed a strong submarine force and pretty healthy surface fleet. It has a lot of off the rack and domestically made anti-shipping weapons, but not a lot in terms of naval air power other than land-based air, which is hardly enough for all-round zone defence of such a large country. Modernization was also a factor in upgrading the rest of the surface fleet.
That’s not quite the whole story. Unlike the US, and just about every naval power in history, China only has one long coastline to defend. Its neighbors, with the possible exception of Japan, are no kind of national threat. The US fleet is only a problem if there is an actual conflict with America or regional allies, which seems unlikely.
Where else would China want to “project power”? From most perspectives, there aren’t that many places worth projecting it, in terms of China’s interests. Forget the vapid military adventurism theories; big powerful carriers need an operational reason to exist.
So what is it? Direct, visible competition with the Americans in establishing a naval presence, taking on the Americans at their own game? Not very plausible. Not even worth considering, in fact. American naval forces have a lot more capacity and depth in their carrier fleet. The US navy also has a lot more experience in the operational realities of carrier forces, logistics, maintenance, etc., which are very resource-intensive over long periods of time. What would be the point of some mindless carrier engagement in some obscure part of the Pacific for the Chinese?
The more likely, and practical, reason for a big Chinese carrier presence is to create an undisputed naval supremacy in the region. The Chinese navy is currently no minor power, and this added capacity elevates it to a truly superior, virtually unchallengeable force. In purely defensive terms, the carriers also allow China to focus air superiority over the entire adjacent region, too, a definite plus.
Realities vs strategy
There’s a problem with that rosy view, though. The new power will be rubbing shoulders with the Japanese and US fleets. The Japanese navy, no trivial force in its own right, and very advanced, is likely to be a difficult relationship.
There’s also an obvious geographical and military intersection in this situation: The China/Japan dispute over islands on their doorsteps. The disputed islands are practically dead centre between Japan and China, and interestingly, at an equally inconvenient distance for both to maintain air presences.
China has already declared an air defence zone over the islands. It’s a bit academic, because fighters of both nations are operating at a somewhat awkward distance from their bases. Add Chinese carriers to the mix, and it’s a new ball game.
Chinese and Japanese relations, always abrasive in recent years in particular, may escalate as a result of airspace issues on any level. A direct confrontation with Japan, which does have some serious credibility, could happen, with the odds stacked in China’s favour, in theory.
A joint US-Japan strike group headed by the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits t...
A joint US-Japan strike group headed by the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits through the Philippine Sea on April 28, 2017
Z.A. Landers, US NAVY/AFP/File
In practice, the other obvious factor, the US Navy, comes in to play almost immediately in this scenario. As a hedge against close US approaches, the new Chinese carriers could play a role, albeit at a disadvantage if distant from support. Not to underrate China’s very clear capabilities, but US carrier fleets come with a massive range of backup, subs, and anti-shipping capabilities.
A theoretical second battle of Midway, somewhere north east of Taiwan, is no easy option for the Chinese, and they could hardly fail to recognize the fact. Nor would any competent military strategy simply accept an obviously unfavourable position as a basis for planning.
The only working tactical interpretation of this situation is that there’s a lot more in the mix than carriers and rhetoric. The overwhelming hint of a much broader, longer term strategy is undeniable. The most likely all-purpose theory would be that China is creating both capacity and depth, but is keeping its operational options open as far as possible.
One thing for sure - Being hemmed in to the Chinese coast and South China Sea isn’t likely to be the driving operational concept of a quite large carrier force. Watch this subject, because it will get interesting.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Peoples Liberation Army Navy, Chinese navy, Chinese aircraft carriers, japanese navy, Us navy
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