Chinese Aircraft Carrier-US Concerns
Sultan M Hali


The unexpected appearance in January of China's first stealth fighter, the J-20, sent shockwaves across the Asia-Pacific region, forcing China's East Asian neighbours to rethink their defence planning but the announcement last June by Chen Bingde, China’s top military official that China was developing its own aircraft carrier, sent its protagonists into a tail spin.

Now China's first aircraft carrier has begun its inaugural sea trial, much to the chagrin of the US and its factotums in the region. Although Beijing has made a modest beginning and only recently confirmed it was revamping an old Soviet ship to be its first carrier, yet the US, which operates 11 aircraft carriers, and Britain, France, Australia, Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Thailand, Russia and India also maintain aircraft carriers, find China’s humble start worrisome.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) had expressed interest in operating aircraft carriers as part of its blue water aspirations since the 1970s, which was logical, considering the threat perception as well as the requirements of a growing force. As part of its quest to build aircraft carriers and acquaint itself with the sophisticated technology, since 1985, China has acquired four retired aircraft carriers for study: the Australian HMAS Melbourne and the ex-Soviet carriers Minsk, Kiev and Varyag. China reportedly bought the Varyag’s immense armoured hull—with no engine, electrics or propeller—in 1998 from Ukraine, after it was abandoned by the former Soviet Union due to depletion of funds. The 300 meter, 66,000 ton displacement Type 089 aircraft carriers based on the Varyag, is due to be finished by 2015. Sukhoi Su-33s (navalized Flankers) are the aircraft most likely to be flown from these carriers but China is also developing its own version of the Sukhoi 33, the J-15 Flying Shark.

Beijing last month sought to play down the capability of its first carrier, saying the vessel would be used for training and "research". The first sea trial is just for testing different items, while on-off sea trials would continue for another year or two. Last week Japan voiced concern over China's growing assertiveness and widening naval reach and over what it called the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military budget. The carrier project also comes amid heightened tensions over a number of maritime territorial disputes involving China, notably in the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas and is claimed by several countries. The issue has heated up recently with run-ins between China and fellow claimants Vietnam and the Philippines, sparking concern among its neighbouring countries and the United States.

The United States has declared that it would like China to explain why it needs an aircraft carrier amid broader US concerns about Beijing's lack of transparency over its military aims. "We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters when asked whether the carrier would raise regional tensions. "This is part of our larger concern that China is not as transparent as other countries. It's not as transparent as the United States about its military acquisitions, about its military budget," she said. "And we'd like to have the kind of open, transparent relationship in military-to-military affairs," Nuland said. "In our military-to-military relations with many countries around the world, we have the kind of bilateral dialogue where we can get quite specific about the equipment that we have and its intended purposes and its intended movements," she said. But China and the United States are "not at that level of transparency" to which the two nations aspire, Nuland added.

Such expression of concern smacks of duplicity, when India, which is being propped up by the US as a bulwark to China in the region, is developing a number of aircraft carriers. The Indian Navy is operating the INS Viraat, a Centaur class carrier in service since 1987. While the INS Vikramaditya, the modified Kiev class carrier is planned to enter service in 2012. On top of it, India is indigenously developing the Vikrant class 40,000 ton aircraft carrier, being built at Cochin Shipyard in southern India and is expected to enter service in 2012, while the INS Vishal, a 65,000 ton aircraft carrier is also being constructed at the Cochin Shipyard. It is planned to be placed under Vikrant class aircraft carrier.

While a media campaign is on to induce China’s neighbours to express their concerns over its acquisition of an aircraft carrier, a concerted campaign has started to downplay the effectiveness of China’s aircraft carrier capability. Analysts are claiming that they have not seen any catapult or arrester wire system on board from satellite photographs thus they are speculating that China will use its aircraft carrier only for helicopters. Without catapults or arrester wires, the carrier will not be able to operate any airborne early-warning aircraft needed to provide comprehensive radar coverage for fleets. This means the carrier will have limited area awareness, unable to see or respond to threats beyond the horizon of ship-based radar. They claim that logistical constraints will also limit the time the carrier can spend at sea: the PLA-N possesses only five seaworthy replenishment ships, none of them over 22,000 tons.

Another disinformation being propagated is that even if it becomes operational, the carrier and its air groups will be hugely vulnerable and China is unlikely to risk using it in any confrontation with rivals in the South China Sea. Simultaneously propaganda machinery is propagating that Vietnam, another rival of China over South China Sea disputes, is likely to acquire the Indo-Russian BrahMos. With a speed of Mach 2.8, the missile is four times as fast as a US-made Tomahawk missile and would present a lethal threat to any vessel within its 300-kilometer range.

The fact remains that China has every right to develop and build a strong navy that is commensurate with its rising status; the aircraft carrier is an inevitable choice for the country to safeguard its increasingly globalized national interests.