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More hints about China's aircraft carrier

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COMMENTS

18 November 2008 12:55

Coming on top of recent reports that China is close to reaching a deal with Russia for carrier-based fighters, the Financial Times writes that a Chinese Major General, while not commenting on China's carrier ambitions specifically, has made  'the defence ministry’s most forthright statement yet on the issue':

“The navy of any great power . . . has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers,” he said in the interview, which aides said was the first arranged by the defence ministry on its own premises. “The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier.”

Major General Qian Lihua goes on to argue that China would use its carriers for offshore defence rather than global reach. Translated, that means they could be used in a Taiwan War scenario, but not to project power globally like the US does with its carriers.

As the FT says, such assurances are unlikely to reassure many, and they are unconvincing anyway, since carriers are probably not that useful to China in a Taiwan scenario. The island is well within range of Chinese air bases, and if China wanted to extend its air 'umbrella' over Taiwan, it would be cheaper to invest in air-to-air refuellers than carriers.

That doesn't mean we should leap to the opposite conclusion that China is racing toward a naval fleet to challenge the US. It will take China years (perhaps more than a decade) to actually build the carriers and escort ships, and to have crews trained to use them. They are only just starting this process by slowly refurbishing a half-finished ex-Soviet carrier (photo below courtesy of Sinodefence.com), which might be used as  training vessel.

So what we will see initially is a fleet similar in capability to that of France or the UK, rather than a competitor to the US.  Still, that would be a massive leap forward for a navy that was, until the 90s, a rather antiquated coastal defence force.

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