Should South East Asia be concerned?
Sultan M Hali


China joined the exclusive club of navies operating aircraft carriers with the unveiling of Liaoning, a former Soviet Union carrier. The vessel was commissioned in the last years of the Soviet Union, where it was known as the Varyag, before being sold to Chinese buyers by the government of Ukraine in 1998; but over recent years, the carrier, which at 67,500 tons is the same type as those still used by the Russian Navy, and smaller only than the United States’ Enterprise and Nimitz-class vessels, has been thoroughly retrofitted in the northeastern Chinese naval base in Dalian, a port city in northeast China’s Liaoning province, where the handover ceremony took place on the morning of September 25, 2012 , with top Chinese leaders presiding.

Till the launching of Liaoning, China was the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which did not possess an aircraft carrier. However, Chinese leadership stressed that the unveiling of Liaoning is not a status symbol as some of China’s detractors have been declaring.

The 300 meters long carrier is currently devoid of operational aircraft and will be used for training. So far the trial runs of the aircraft carrier have been to test the ship's propulsion, communications and navigation systems; but launching and recovering fixed-wing aircraft at sea is a complex operation. It will take years to build the proper aircraft, to train pilots to land in adverse weather on a moving deck, and to develop a proper carrier battle group (CBG). China is developing a carrier-based fighter-bomber, the J-15, derivative of Russian Sukhoi Su-33, along with a prototype stealth carrier fighter, the J-31.

China is also building two more indigenously designed aircraft carriers which should be inducted by 2020, while the ultimate plan is for the acquisition of five aircraft carriers. The commissioning of Liaoning is just the beginning as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is entering a new discipline of establishing a CBG. China is a late entrant into the aircraft carrier club, so far the countries wielding this element of power projection comprise:

US - Twenty (including amphibious assault ships equipped with aircraft)

UK - Two

India - Two

Japan - Two (equipped with helicopters only)

Italy - Two

Spain - Two

France - One

Russia - One

Brazil - One

Thailand - One

South Korea - One (equipped with helicopters only)

In an age where defence pundits are denouncing maintaining aircraft carriers, China builds its case for the acquisition of carriers on the logic that it allows a nation to take air power around the globe without having to worry about countries in between who might refuse the use of ground bases or airspace. It argues that carriers need not be perceived as weapons only but have peaceful uses, which was demonstrated by their extensive use to rescue and aid the Tsunami victims and other catastrophe and calamity hit regions.

China’s South East Asian neighbours have been wary of its flexing its muscles but the aircraft carrier does not enhance that power projection. China is already troubled by a number of territorial disputes. With Japan’s illegal occupation of the islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, tension is running high. The Spratly and Paracel archipelago are two groups of largely uninhabited islands located within the South China Sea, which are basically Chinese territory but are subject to a complex territorial dispute involving the surrounding countries. If Southeast Asians are worried that the new carrier could be used to assert Beijing’s maritime claims in the region, based on their recent standoff with the Peoples’ Republic of China, this worry could be exaggerated. PRC has been relying increasingly on lightly-equipped civilian law-enforcement vessels for such functions instead of PLAN warships and this trend is projected to continue as China rapidly builds up such capacities.

In times when its emergence as a great power has come under intense international scrutiny, the last thing Beijing would want is to be seen as overly aggressive by exploiting its newfound naval might. The deliberate low-profile induction of this first aircraft carrier is one such gesture of China’s reluctance to be portrayed as using disproportionate force in its pursuit of settling territorial disputes with its neigbours.

Also, rather than an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, greater efficacy and credibility can be achieved through ‘less glamorous’ power projection capabilities such as Beijing’s rapidly expanding amphibious assault forces, or fourth-generation land-based airpower supported by mid-air refueling aircraft. That would provide more immediate ramifications to the regional naval balance. In the shorter term, these aspects instead of the carrier programme deserve greater attention of China’s Southeast Asian neighbours.

With US and Indian aircraft carriers lurking in the South China Sea, Beijing has specifically declared that the intended role for the carrier is to help safeguard China's coastline and keep its sea lines of communication open. The Liaoning has also been portrayed as a kind of test platform for the future development of the five domestically built Chinese carriers. Liaoning will be used to master the technology for more advanced carriers and used to train in how to operate such a craft in a battle group and with vessels from other nation's navies. Whatever its ramifications on China's global status, the carrier embodies huge symbolism for China's political and military leaders as a totem of its rise from weakness to strength. PLAN’s acceptance of the Liaoning is the first step in a long journey; it is a sojourn that will take place in full view of the world, and one that will ultimately take Beijing to a new place as a great sea power. The carrier's political importance was highlighted in Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao's remarks while presiding the delivery and induction ceremony, in which he said it would "arouse national pride and patriotic passion. This has mighty and deep significance for the opening of a new facet in our enterprise of socialism with Chinese characteristics," he stressed.