In the midst of last month's debt ceiling insanity, the Chinese Ministry of Defense quietly acknowledged what must be one of the world's worst-kept secrets: China is building an aircraft carrier. And according to an official Chinese news source, it could take to the seas in a matter of weeks.
Speculation on China's naval ambitions has simmered for more than a decade, ever since a shady Hong Kong-based company bought a rusting Kuznetsov-class carrier from the Ukraine and promised to turn it into a floating casino in Macao. Analysts were understandably skeptical of the ship's future as an entertainment venue, and suspicions deepened as the ship was towed not to Macao but to Dalian -- home of the Dalian Naval Academy and a nexus of Chinese naval manufacturing companies. To be fair, Chinese companies had turned two other large Soviet-era ships into public playtoys -- so the claim was not entirely implausible. But by 2005 the ship was painted in military colors, and this June a top general finally confirmed to a Hong Kong paper that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was indeed constructing China's first carrier.
But so what? India, Thailand, Brazil, and Italy all have aircraft carriers too, yet no one fears Rome or Bangkok taking over the world anytime soon. And as David Axe of Wired's Danger Room has written, the renovated carrier won't exactly be the terror of the high seas when it finally enters service. Chinese military electronics are pretty good, true, and the combination of mobile Su-33 fighters and SS-N-22 anti-ship cruise missiles is nothing to thumb your nose at. But with regards to the U.S. Navy, there's still at least a thirty-year technology gap between the fledgling Chinese carrier resting at port and the battle-ready U.S. Seventh Fleet prowling the seas. More importantly, the U.S. has about seven decades of experience manning, operating, and protecting a complex Carrier Battle Group -- experience not easily made up through technology. Without years of training and an integrated air-defense system, a Chinese carrier looks very much like a large, floating bulls-eye.
The carrier program remains a popular topic of discussion, though, both here and in China. And it turns out there are some good reasons to pay attention -- because of what it may communicate about China's strategic outlook:
First, it draws attention to the large gap between China's military and foreign policy doctrines. That the PLA was pursuing a carrier program is perhaps not as significant as the perceived need to keep it quiet; the secrecy and frequent denials imply an agenda at odds with Beijing's professed intentions. Secrecy in itself is hardly nefarious; to some degree, all militaries are secretive. But under President Hu Jintao, the PLA has been specifically tasked with defending national interests beyond territorial integrity, even as Chinese diplomats set out to convince the world that China's rise will be marked by cooperation, not confrontation. As recently as the June 2011 Shangri-La Conference (an annual meeting of top Asian defense officials), Defense Minister Liang Guanglie proclaimed that "The path of peaceful development is by no means an expedient but [rather] a strategic choice... China unswervingly adheres to a defense policy [that is] defensive in nature." Perhaps the PLA leadership believes this -- but it suggests a very broad definition of "defense" that other nations are not likely to find reassuring.
Second, it communicates an intention to pursue disruptive maritime territorial claims, especially in the contested South China Sea. Maybe China's new carrier couldn't square off against the Seventh Fleet -- but it doesn't have to. All it has to do is extend China's early-warning and response capability and provide enough muscle to intimidate weaker neighbors into negotiating China's sovereignty claims. A carrier group operating off China's southern coast could extend the PLA's early-warning and response capability by several hundred miles, according to Capt. Carl Otis Schuster (Ret.), a career naval analyst and instructor at Hawaii Pacific University. That, plus the larger arsenal of high-tech area-denial weapons coming on-line, could indeed change the way the U.S. and other nations operate in the Pacific region.
Third, it isn't one carrier-- it's three. Or maybe five. No sooner had the Defense Ministry admitted the existence of one carrier than Chinese sources confirmed the existence of two additional carriers being built in Shanghai. A PLA General further commented that "India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014... So I think the number (for China) should not be less than three." The addition of two indigenous carriers would put China in an entirely different class, since currently the United States is the only nation with more than two carriers in service. And it also establishes the dedicated industrial base needed to build more -- making it increasingly hard to explain away as a program for territorial defense or national prestige.
There are perhaps legitimate reasons that China is pursuing a carrier program -- and of course, we can't really stop them. But if China's leaders are simply using the "peaceful development" banner as a cover to acquire the military needed to displace the U.S. in the Pacific, that's a shame -- because the precedent of a 21st century nation rising peacefully would be hugely significant. If it holds to its stated philosophy, Beijing has the opportunity to do something historic-- something that could define the character of the 21st century as surely as superpower conflict defined the 20th. It could prove that while conflict between powerful nations may be inevitable, bloody and expensive military contests are not -- and that as a civilization, we are capable of learning from our mistakes.