August 08, 2007
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August 07, 2007 22 05 GMT
The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy continues to push for aircraft carrier capability, despite ongoing internal debate and dissent. While a carrier is a valuable naval asset, China's pursuit must be understood as an expensive choice that entails considerable opportunity costs.
China appears committed to deploying the Soviet-built Varyag aircraft carrier in at least a training role around or after 2010, with the potential for further pursuits, despite contradictory claims in recent weeks. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will have to sacrifice much to continue this costly endeavor.
The Chinese Logic
A carrier fleet substantially expands a country's naval capability, so it is easy to understand China's ambition. The British, for example, would never have been able to take back the Falkland Islands in 1982 without the HMS Invincible and the HMS Hermes. Furthermore, the Chinese have carefully noted the decisive role the U.S. Navy's carrier fleet has played in Washington's global naval dominance.
For the Chinese, a carrier fleet means several things. It is a mark of status as a great power, a massive and ambitious national undertaking, a way to alter the current dynamics of air power in the region, a tool to project force beyond the East and South China seas and a means of expanding China's ability to protect ever-expanding import and export routes.
There is logic to China's view of carrier capability as a mark of great power, and the British operation to retake the Falklands is a perfect example: To have global influence, you must have global reach, which becomes a tool of foreign policy and affects the perception of a nation's naval power. China is quite aware that it is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to never deploy an operational carrier.
China also is the nation that built the Great Wall. More recently, China built the Three Gorges Dam to supply a full 10 percent of domestic electricity supply and now has plans to land on the moon. The Chinese have a certain penchant for massively ambitious projects, and the construction of a carrier fleet certainly falls into that category. But such plans have often been pursued with a consequences-be-damned determination -- one that accepts enormous inefficiencies and the commitment of huge resources also needed elsewhere. The opportunity costs of this particular attempt at a great leap forward cannot be underestimated.
A desire for international recognition as a great power and a tendency to bite off more than one can chew hardly make for a prudent investment, and as much as 50 percent of China's motivation to develop a carrier capability could fall into one of these categories.
From a more strategic perspective, the Chinese are aware of their great vulnerability due to exposed import and export routes. With exports that reach nearly every corner of the globe and an already heavy reliance on Africa for energy resources (and ongoing pursuits of Latin American energy resources), China has the global vulnerabilities of an empire but not the naval ability to protect them. This is the core geopolitical weakness Beijing hopes a carrier fleet might solve. As Beijing becomes increasingly reliant on other countries for raw materials and trade endeavors, it faces a continued shift away from long traditions of being a land power to participating -- and competing -- in the maritime world.
The Situation Close to Home
This competition is a big part of the problem. Beijing is facing a serious expansion of military power in the region. All branches of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) already face technologically superior competition from some of China's closest neighbors. The South Korean navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces are now both equipped with domestic variants of the highly capable U.S. Arleigh Burke design (including the Aegis weapon system) in service. In 2004, Japan shifted F-15C fighter jets to Xaidi Island (Shimoji), uncomfortably close to Taiwan, adding to the complexity of any offensive across the Formosa Strait.
Because of this game of catch-up, Beijing has no shortage of military projects -- especially naval projects -- it could get more economical, near-term and effective results from. Consider the amphibious warfare pursuits of South Korea, Japan and Australia, which are much more manageable and realistic steps for each country. China has instead persisted along the carrier route, and is consequently behind the curve in its amphibious capability.
The PLAN, along with the other branches of the PLA, has made admirable improvements in the last decade. There has been progress in areas such as missile technology and nuclear submarine propulsion -- progress more realistically within China's technological grasp than a meaningful carrier fleet -- and it is precisely these more realistic, near-term pursuits and improvements that will suffer.
Carriers do not come cheap. The Varyag was originally purchased with more than $500 million in work still required. Carrier aircraft must then be acquired (talks are under way for the purchase of 50 Russian Su-33 navalized "Flankers" for something in the ballpark of $2.5 billion) and appropriate escorts and auxiliary ships dedicated or built. Even without start-up costs, the United States spends more than a $1 billion annually simply to deploy, operate and maintain a single carrier strike group -- and a meaningful carrier fleet requires not just one carrier, but three.
And for what?
Effective and meaningful carrier aviation is the product of decades of extensive first-hand experience at sea. The establishment of a trained cadre of naval aviators, efficient flight-deck operations and naval doctrine cannot be reverse engineered, and further investment will be necessary for China to even begin to adequately explore these core competencies. China is in effect neglecting its own current weaknesses in order to attempt to compete in one of the most technically demanding and certainly the most expensive naval pursuits there is -- carrier aviation.
The deployment of a carrier will be seen as an unmistakable sign of Chinese ambitions and will draw even closer attention and more intense competition from not only the U.S. Navy, but also from Beijing's regional competitors -- something the PLAN simply does not need right now.
In other words, China will be stretching itself to build a rudimentary carrier fleet -- a pursuit that will necessarily involve costly sacrifices elsewhere within the navy. Of all the things Beijing hopes to gain from that carrier fleet, more will be lost in the process of attaining it. It might be seen as a great leap forward, but it will ultimately represent movement in the opposite direction.
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