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China's aircraft carrier mystery (part 1)

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COMMENTS

26 May 2011 09:44

In the mid-1990s, China, protesting against what it perceived as a relaxation of constraints on Taiwanese independence, staged a series of military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The US response was direct and coercive: with its credibility at stake, Washington dispatched two aircraft-carrier groups to waters surrounding Taiwan. It was a bold escalation, and to the extent that it forced Beijing to desist, it worked. Yet the episode also heralded a number of important lessons for China's military and political leadership. 

Today, the most intensive aspect of Chinese military modernisation involves the development of a maritime denial strategy, designed to limit China's liability to similar forms of coercion. In practice, this means raising the costs and risks to US forces, especially aircraft carrier groups, of operating along China's maritime periphery or in the vicinity of Taiwan.

It's a smart approach. By focusing on a few key elements — submarines and combat aircraft; precision-guided strike capabilities, including an anti-ship ballistic missile; and C4ISR assets, which allow for effective tracking and targeting — China has adopted a cost-effective strategy within technological reach that, by deterring or preventing US carrier groups from safely deploying within the first and second island chains, has already begun to greatly complicate US naval planning.

Moreover, because it does not rely on the kinds of capabilities necessary to seize and hold territory across water – namely, large warships – the strategy also contains elements of reassurance, however implicit, tempering the urgency of regional balancing efforts. 

In this regard, China's decision to acquire an aircraft carrier – which is nearing completion (see photo above) and may sail soon — presents defence analysts with a puzzle. Aircraft carriers, of course, are threatening, designed to facilitate power projection over great distances. They are cost- and labour-intensive; have no compelling role in China's denial strategy; require extensive escort, thus diverting other naval capabilities; and, given the limits of anti-submarine warfare, may be vulnerable to even relatively modest denial capabilities.

This begs the question: having spent much of the past two decades studying and seeking to exploit the limitations of aircraft carriers, why is China embarked on its own, apparently sub-optimal program? Three competing explanations stand out, which I will explore in two follow-up posts.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence Forum.

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