China playing the long game with aircraft carrier plans

China playing the long game with aircraft carrier plans

This week, China’s second aircraft carrier set out to begin testing, although it is not expected to enter service until 2020. The unnamed carrier is the first to be built in China—China’s other carrier was purchased from Ukraine.

China’s navy has been increasingly active, not only in the nearby seas, but further away in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The carrier program at this stage is mainly symbolic – a source of pride, as aircraft carriers are seen as a symbol of power projection capabilities. As the program matures however, its implications for the global balance of power, and China’s geo-economic ambitions, become more interesting.

Naval capabilities

Chinese carrier program still lags far behind the United States’ 20 aircraft carriers (nearly half of all carriers globally), 12 of which are classed as “supercarriers” based on their size and capabilities. Nonetheless, China now possess one of the world’s most capable navies, and it plans to construct 6 additional carriers in the coming decade. 

China’s military modernization threatens the United States’ security commitments to Taiwan, as well its advocacy for Freedom of Navigation rights (the right for ships from any country to move freely in international waters—defined as all waters more than three nautical miles from the coastline of a state). Competing claims over maritime rights in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines all threaten to disrupt activity along the major sea lanes of communication running through the region. The U.S. is committed to a peaceful resolution of the disputes, and has sent ships near disputed features in response to Chinese claims that it has sovereignty over these waters.

Moreover, China has developed capabilities through its coastal defenses and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea that would render conventional carrier groups unable to operate in the region. The Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle concept is one attempt to adapt to this reality. Given the time and expense needed to construct aircraft carriers, and their vulnerability to being destroyed, China’s anti-naval capabilities reduce the efficacy of U.S. aircraft carriers in their ability to project power overseas. Were China’s strategy of area denial to become a model of defense planning, it would in turn render China’s aircraft carriers less useful in any future attempts to project power overseas.

Risk outlooks

In the near term, China’s aircraft carrier program will cause limited political risk, although its more significant as a signal of China’s intentions and capabilities. The primary function of aircraft carriers is to serve as mobile air bases far from home—to project power across oceans. Yet China has only one fully operational carrier (an antiquated Soviet model at that) and is currently staffing the ship with 3 officers for every 1 job in order to train sufficient personnel to operate the second carrier when it enters service. China has no significant experience in modern naval combat, let alone in coordinating an entire carrier group far from home (despite PLA Navy officials’ claims to the contrary).

China is more immediately concerned with establishing military dominance in the East and South China Seas—nearby waters that do not require the ability to project power over long distances. While aircraft carriers will not be game-changing assets in this respect, other elements of China’s defense acquisitions—submarines, drones, and anti-ship ballistic missiles—have and will continue to transform the balance of power in the region. These acquisitions will prevent conventional navies—such as the United States’—from operating safely in these waters (referred to as Anti-Area Access Denial, or A2/AD). For the U.S., these capabilities increase the challenges of successfully defending Taiwan from invasion, which would cast doubt on the United States’ ability to fulfill its security commitments to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. They also jeopardize the United States’ ability to continue its Freedom of Navigation operations. These exercises bring U.S. ships into close proximity with Chinese-claimed features in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese claims to sovereignty over nearly the entire region. It is the expansion of these capabilities, and not China’s blue water navy, that will offer a better indication of the short term political risks China’s foreign policy poses in the region.

Projecting power

The longer-term risk outlook is markedly different. In the coming decades, China will likely develop the capacity to project power far from its shores, and its aircraft carrier program may begin to demonstrate its efficacy. China’s proposed six carriers would put it second only to the United States’. As additional carriers enter service, China will have further opportunities to train personnel and build its experience in carrier group operations.

One region where naval power projection and China’s geopolitical goals intersect is in sub-Saharan Africa. China has substantial commercial operations in this region, mainly geared toward resource extraction. Though popular with governments for the money they bring in, China’s activities have drawn the ire of local communities. These operations are typically staffed by Chinese laborers who are kept segregated. By failing to contribute to the local economies where these resources are being extracted—in terms of aid, investment, or jobs—China has acquired the image of a 21st century colonial power, creating the risk of resistance and unrest. In this context, China’s perceived ability to place an aircraft carrier in the vicinity of endangered commercial operations would be a useful deterrent, protecting the continuing flow of resources to China’s massive economy. The risk of naval confrontation with the U.S. over this aggressive use of power is low given that U.S. policymakers have rarely given priority to sub-Saharan Africa in the U.S.’s broader geopolitical outlook.

China’s continued military modernization efforts are having a dramatic effect on the global balance of power. While China vaunts the expansion of its aircraft carrier program, this is, for the time being, a poor indicator of China’s military capabilities compared with other programs with a more short-term impact in China’s own region. In the coming decades, however, the ability to project power across oceans has the power to reshape China’s geopolitical and geo-economic place in the world.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Jesse Bruner

Jesse Bruner is a professional in the field of geopolitics, specializing in East and South Asian security. He currently works as a global mobility professional, assisting businesses in relocating international workers to the United States. He earned his M.A. in Geopolitics, Territory, and Security from King’s College London, and a B.A. in International Studies from American University. He has previously worked at Doctors without Borders, the U.S. Peace Corps, the Belgian Royal Military Academy, and the Center for Global Peace.