What China’s Aircraft Carrier Means for its Naval Defence Capabilities

What China’s Aircraft Carrier Means for its Naval Defence Capabilities

On April 26 at the Dalian Shipyard in China’s northern province of Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier. Adhering to Naval tradition, the hull of the new ‘Type 001A’ was transferred from the dock into the water,  formalising the vessels’ ingress to the fleet.

Most likely to be named ‘Shandong’ after the Chinese port, the carrier is expected to be operable by 2020, joining China’s first and only carrier currently in service – the Liaoning – in Beijing’s pursuit for maritime power. Like the Liaoning, the new carrier is based on the Kuznetsov-class design from the Soviet era in its deck and take-off styling as well as in its propulsion abilities.

The unveiling of the Type 001A was followed by numerous international news outlets declaring that this proved China is significantly ramping up its defence capabilities, acting more aggressively in the maritime arena, and expanding its overseas ambitions.

Certainly, the launch of a new aircraft carrier poses fresh questions around China’s current naval defence capabilities, but despite this being a decisive step forward for President Xi and the Chinese military, they are still light-years away from being a force to test the US and as such their capabilities should not be exaggerated. Come 2030, however, there may be a different story to tell.

The changing face of Chinese defence

China is now the seventh country with the ability to build its own aircraft carriers after the US, Russia, Britain, France, Italy and Spain. However, although the launch of the new carrier in Dalian was cause for celebration, the carrier’s wider début was not all smooth sailing – perhaps itself indicative of the wider chasm between how the launch was reported in the media and the PLAN’s own naval proficiency.

Shortly after a bottle of champagne was cracked on the hull, China’s defence ministry posted a photo on their Weibo and WeChat social media accounts to mark the PLAN’s 68th birthday. It showed navy ships and fighter jets alongside the Liaoning aircraft carrier. However, instead of China’s own military, the image depicted Russian jets and American vessels. The Ministry was quick to apologise for the mistake – the first time they had publicly apologised for a work error, according to the Communist Party’s mouthpiece the Global Times – with spokesman Yang Yujun saying he was “sincerely sorry”.

Beyond the embarrassment of such a spectacular blunder, the launch of the aircraft carrier comes one month after China announced it would increase its military budget by roughly 7% this coming year. This is the second year in a row that increases have been less than 10%, after two decades of larger increases. The increase has gone hand-in-hand with another reality of Chinese defence: a shift to the seas.

Beijing has realised its territorial and economic challenges are predominantly aquatic and has shifted its priorities accordingly. The huge revamp and expansion in China’s navy is first and foremost about making the PLA a more nimble and efficient fighting force, within which the PLAN will play a crucial role. One such development, for example, is that China is reportedly increasing the size of the Marine Corps five-fold, to 100,000.

Protection of sovereignty and commerce

Seen through a military lens, China’s decision to increase its naval power is to address defence for what China sees as the four immediate security crises it faces: the South China Sea – to which it lays claim, the East China Sea and islands it disputes ownership of, North Korea’s nuclear programme, and the THAAD anti-missile defence system that the US has deployed in South Korea.

In light of these challenges, China is reportedly planning to build up to four additional carriers, with the newest one – the Type 002 – believed to be under construction at a shipyard outside Shanghai. Beyond the construction of additional carriers, the PLAN is projected to have around 270 warships, vessels and submarines by 2020, which would almost equal the total number of deployable battle force ships the US navy currently has. Six months ago in November 2016, China demonstrated its newfound muscle by instructing the Liaoning aircraft carrier to conduct its first live-fire drills as well as take-off and landing training exercises in the South China Sea.

These hint at a more assertive PLAN, but it’s not all about military influence; there is also a commercial colour to China’s move to the seas. Historically speaking, Europe dominated the seas in the 1950s, Japan dominated in the 1960s, the rest of Asia came into the picture in about 1975, and since the late 1990s, China and South East Asia in particular have become major players. As we move through the latter 2010s, far from the stagnation, the wave of Asia import growth is growing.

In the South China Sea alone, which China and a number of other countries claim rights over, an estimated US$5 trillion worth of goods are transported through its shipping lanes each year, including over 50% of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage and near 33% of all maritime traffic worldwide. On top of this, according to the World Shipping Council, China is the top exporter of containerised cargo, its total rising from 31.3 million teus in 2010 to 36 million in 2014. It is also the second highest importer of containerised cargo, importing 14.7 million teus, second only to the US, which imports 19.6 million. China therefore knows that developing its maritime capabilities is key to protecting its borders as well as its economic interests.

Battling the storms to come

Despite advancements, China’s bid for nautical growth is inhibited by both its copycat approach to military advancement and the reality that the high seas are patrolled by a far greater power. These challenges are currently proving insurmountable.  

Firstly, despite the fact that Beijing is presenting the Type 001A as China’s first domestically constructed aircraft carrier, the vessel is in effect just a modernised version of a Soviet warship. As the Russian news agency Sputnik was quick to point out, the Chinese aircraft carrier has Soviet roots and is based on old designs from the USSR. Adding insult to injury, the Chinese acquired its first aircraft carrier from Ukraine for US$25 million and at the time it was already 60% complete. The very fact that an ally of China’s is quick to point out its dependence on their design, speaks volumes about China’s lack of innovation in the naval sphere.

Second, although China spends just over US$200 billion on defence, and despite the fact that defence spending is going to increase by 7% this year, when viewing the past decade’s increases in military budgets in per capita terms, it’s clear that expenditure has climbed relatively slowly in China, at a pace of less than 15%. Between 2013 and 2016 for example, China’s military spending as a share of GDP was 1.95% compared with the US, whose spending was much higher at to 3.3%. Furthermore, while China’s military spending will be roughly 1.3% of the country’s projected GDP in 2017, the US will spend more than 3% of its economic output on the military – and as the US economy is larger, the actual dollar value difference is colossal.

Despite the fact that Washington’s defence expenditure has fallen almost 5% in the past 10 years, the US spends more per year on its military, US$215 billion, than the next seven largest countries combined. If you consider the fact that President Trump has also proposed a 10% increase in the military budget, the US will continue to dwarf China in purely numerical terms.

It is how these numbers manifest themselves, however, that denotes the true comparative lagging on the part of the Chinese. The US operates 19 aircraft carriers, of which the 10 Nimitz-class supercarriers are nuclear-powered – meaning they are quicker, they can spend longer time at sea and their planes can take weightier loads – it has almost twice as many destroyers than China, 7 more submarines and has 323,000 personnel, 88,000 more than China. The US also has more than three quarters of a century worth of carrier aviation experience, which has included training for direct confrontation in war.

If China is to truly challenge US dominance in such an arena, it needs to shift away from simply being an effective technological emulator.

Refashioning a Deng maxim for the 21st century

A decade after coming to power in 1978, then-President Deng Xiaoping created a famous 24-character strategy on economic development that stated China should “hide your capabilities, bide your time and accomplish things where possible”. Three decades later, in 2016, across the Pacific Ocean, the Pentagon commissioned the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to undertake an independent assessment of US strategy in the Asia Pacific. In its conclusion, the study cautioned, “By 2030, the South China Sea will be virtually a Chinese lake, as the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico is for the United States today”.

Certainly, China, for the foreseeable future will not be able to match the US’s conventional military and thus the PLAN would do well to heed Deng’s maxim in its military development. As Chinese military expert Harry Kazianis argues, “overtime…Beijing will have the capabilities to create an ever increasing ‘no-go zone’ across the Western Pacific…[as] China has the luxury of concentrating all its forces in its immediate neighbourhood.”

It is worth remembering that apart from a brief period in the 15th century, China has never been a naval power. Yet, given the fact that China’s desire to compete in the maritime arena is stimulated by military desire and necessitated by economic needs, hope may be around the corner.

China’s Type 002 carrier will likely have either electromagnetic or steam-powered catapults, which will allow to launch heavier aircraft, and these heavier fighters – such as the J-15 fighters – as well as the long-range anti-submarine warfare carrier and airborne early warning aircraft, will enhance China’s overall combat power.

However, it’s when China is expected to launch its Type 003 carrier that they will really be turning the heat up. Expected in the late 2020s, it will likely be a nuclear powered 90,000-100,000 tonne super carrier, and analysts believe that up to four of these could be built. If they are, they will be the most powerful non-American aircraft carriers in the world. This would certainly change the nautical game as we know it today.

About Author

James Tunningley

James Tunningley is a GRI Associate Analyst. He is the Director of the Young China Watchers in London having previously held positions at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and the China-Britain Business Council. He is on the Young Leaders Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum, a Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society and a Junior Member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford.