by James R. Holmes
Grainy photos of what appears to be a slice of the PLA Navy’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier have been flying around the Internet the past few days. Of their veracity I have little doubt. China’s leadership has openly proclaimed its plans to put a modest fleet of flattops to sea in the coming years. Chinese shipyards have adopted the Western practice of modular construction, meaning that they build the hull in sections, including many of the systems that make an inert hulk a living, fighting ship. They then bolt the sections together, lower the hull into the water, and add the superstructure and the rest of the equipment afterward. This speeds things up while adding efficiency to the shipbuilding process.
When I was a whippersnapper of a Naval Diplomat, I remember watching Aegis cruisers undergoing assembly at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and thinking that was a pretty nifty way to do things. Evidently the PLA Navy agrees.
A couple of years back, when Beijing made its aircraft-carrier aspirations official, the fine folks at Foreign Policy asked me to explain why a historic land power like China cared about flattops. Being a bear of small brain, I reached into my mental bag of tricks and came up with Thucydides’ claim that fear, honor, and interest are three of the prime movers for human actions. Beijing feared U.S. containment, a relic of the Cold War; saw an opportunity to recoup honor lost during the century of humiliation at the hands of the imperial powers; and hoped to add to the naval power it was amassing to advance China’s interests in maritime Asia.
What’s changed since then? Fear and honor are emotional needs. It may be that sending the carrier Liaoning (formerly the Soviet Varyag) to sea helped satisfy China’s need to banish bad cultural memories. But who knows when fear will be at bay? The United States and its allies have ruled the sea in East Asia long enough that their navies may inspire fears disproportionate to their actual margin of supremacy. Or, the Chinese leadership may see value in protesting too loudly, and thus making Western powers fearful of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, namely Sino-American antagonism.
Most importantly, it may be that having ameliorated anxieties arising from honor and fear grants Beijing the luxury of operating mostly from calculations of interest. Simply deploying a carrier, Liaoning, may forestall fears while satisfying Chinese society’s desire for a capability that every other great power enjoys.
Think about it. In the realm of interest — the realm of the naval balance — China’s navy has ample shore-based firepower to back up its fleet while at sea. The PLA Navy, then, need not compete directly with the U.S. Navy to fulfill its operational aims. So long as Beijing confines its interests within range of shore-based fire support — within, say, 1,000 miles of Chinese coasts — the PLA Navy has little need for capabilities symmetrical with those of the United States and its allies. Even lesser carriers can get the job done if anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, patrol craft, and combat aircraft can hold off the U.S. Navy, and if Asian navies are outclassed. Why bother to build to the American standard?
So let’s not assume the PLA Navy is in any hurry to equal the capabilities found in U.S. nuclear-powered flattops. It could be that China will attempt a technological leap with its first indigenous carrier. More likely, it will build an improved variant of the Liaoning/Varyag. Why not play it safe if you can?