Anchors Aweigh, China

China’s top national defense spokesman, Huang Xueping, lit up the world’s airwaves on December 23 when he said yet again that his country is seriously considering adding an aircraft carrier to its navy, suggesting China remains determined to build a blue-water navy, the first since Admiral Zheng He was reined in by the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s.

But while China’s rising military and economic power might be complimented by boats that send airplanes to fly, it isn’t easy or cheap. And while it would be surprising if China, the world’s third-largest trading nation, ruled out the costly and unwieldy behemoths, carriers have been deployed by every major trading nation during the 20th Century.

Yet two decades of ‘plans’, hints, rumors and the acquisition of three decommissioned Soviet aircraft carriers plus another from the Australian navy have come to nothing. It may well be that China has more logical plans. While certainly it has enough skilled naval architects to design and build such a vessel given China’s large and efficient shipbuilding industry, developing a design for an effective and efficient aircraft carrier may be more challenging.

Cost presents a different challenge. Although China could certainly afford to build a carrier, one would hardly be enough. Figure on a minimum of two, perhaps four, which makes the US Navy’s admirals and defense contractors salivate, because they could persuade the Congress to add billions to the US seagoing military budget. China would have to add aircraft, maybe 40 or 50 per ship, which cost more than aircraft configured only for use on runways on terra firma. The bills soon start adding up. US Navy lobbyists would be demanding that the Congress come up with a matching program.

America’s 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers each cost $4.5 billion, for instance. They carry around 90 aircraft each. Britain’s two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, which each could carry around 50 aircraft when they enter service around 2015, are slated to each cost $2.87 billion. On board a Nimitz carrier 3,000 sailors manage and maintain the ship while another 2,500 aboard keep the aircraft armed and flying. Beyond that, a typical US Navy carrier is surrounded by a flotilla of at least eight protective vessels including two guided missile cruisers, a guided missile destroyer, an anti-submarine destroyer, an anti-submarine frigate, two nuclear attack submarines and at least one combined ammunition/supply/oiler vessel. A full carrier battle group carries as many as 15,000 personnel.

Aircraft carriers certainly have value, but for a rising power such as China are they worth the cost given how much alternative punch can be bought with the same money? By contrast cruise missiles, such as America’s Tomahawk which can fly 1,500 miles from a submarine, frigate or long-range bomber, were being bought in 1999 for $600,000.

Put another way, sinking an aircraft carrier with one cruise missile – or a superfast Shkval torpedo – would be a cheap shot, hence the flotilla that surrounds any carrier.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that because America has aircraft carriers China must have them too. America’s needs are not China’s. Carriers took their place in the US and Japanese navies in an age when aircraft couldn’t fly much more than a few hundred miles or top up their tanks in the air from flying tankers. They more than proved their worth during the Second World War in the absence of cruise missiles.

For most of the 20th Century America fought globally against adversaries over ideology, first fascism, then communism. Notably the Soviet Union deployed only a handful of carriers but lots of submarines, appearing to follow the thinking of strategists of Hitler’s Germany.

Meanwhile during that century American corporations came to span the world. America’s interests became global and have remained so. Interests have also built up in favor of carriers, inside the navy and outside among shipbuilders and politicians.

China is different. It is a rising regional power with growing global interests but it is not yet a comprehensive global power like the US, and may not be for another few decades or more. It is willing to work with any country regardless of its ideology or politics. Moreover, it is not (yet) beholden to an aircraft-carrier lobby.

But at least twice, China has had to stand in its mainland redoubt seemingly humbled by the coercive force of American crriers on the horizon– the first time in 1950, when then President Harry S Truman sent the Seventh Fleet down the Taiwan Strait in case China wanted to pursue the fleeing Nationalists to Taiwan. Then, in 1996, as Taiwanese presidential elections neared, China began firing test missiles across the Strait, attempting to influence the election with a show of force. President Bill Clinton responded by again sending the Seventh Fleet into the Strait in what was the described as the biggest show of naval force by the United States since the end of the Vietnam War. China ultimately backed down. The elections culminated in the decisive re-election of the nationalist figure Lee Teng-Hui, then Beijing’s arch-enemy, as the fleet patrolled the Strait.

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Other than Taiwan, China faces a handful of key defense scenarios against which to measure the carrier case. Carriers for China would probably not be a significant factor in a conflict with Taiwan, which lies a mere 150-odd kilometers from the Chinese provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi with their missile batteries and air bases. China’s strategy for defeating Taiwan is a blitzkrieg of missile strikes and air attacks. America’s department of defence reckons China is each year adding 100 ballistic missiles to its coastal batteries for striking Taiwan.

Were China to face off with its close trading partners in Southeast Asia over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, matters might be brought to a close more quickly with aircraft carriers. But without them, the growing power and increasing range, due to in-flight refuelling, of China’s air force, plus the possibility of accessing the air bases of close friends Laos and Cambodia, all but guarantee air superiority for China.

Defeat on the seas seems certain for the principal Southeast Asian claimants of the disputed islands – the Philippines and Vietnam –in the face of the Chinese Navy’s 26 destroyers, 51 frigates and around three dozen attack submarines. In short, China's submarines, frigates and land-based strike aircraft can probably protect regional interests should diplomacy give way to conflict

It is however beyond China's coastal waters where the case is strongest for aircraft carriers. China's growing interests around the world, including rising numbers of Chinese working in far-flung places where its giant corporations are digging mines, drilling for oil or building ports, may one day require defending. America's certainly have, often involving its 11 aircraft carriers or dozen or so additional ships which can launch Harrier strike aircraft.

Almost all of China's imported oil is carried by tankers steaming across the Indian Ocean and through the crowded Strait of Malacca between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. In the long term the threat of the strait being closed to Chinese shipping in a conflict at the request of Washington or by the force of the US Navy could be dealt with by plans now on the books to build oil pipelines across Burma and possibly Pakistan.

That however still leaves the question of securing the sea lanes for Chinese shipping as well as protecting Chinese interests in Africa and elsewhere. It is then the Indian Ocean where China's maritime interests are greatest. They might be protected by submarines and surface ships armed with cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and Shkval torpdoes, or Beijing might decide its admirals will also need carriers. After all, India, the dominant power in the seas between Africa and Asia, has one carrier now and by early the next decade could have three.

India's size, economic potential and nuclear weapons paint it as potentially China's greatest rival, despite detente in recent years. India too has growing interests in Africa. Simply put, states balance not power but threat, which grows inversely to distance.

Chinese diplomats have curried close ties with India's neighbors. They have all benefited from Chinese aid, used mainly to pay Chinese firms to build infrastructure. Indian newspapers frequently fret that India is being surrounded by Chinese allies.

However, in an era in which conflict within states appears on the rise while conflict between them wanes, an aircraft carrier designed to spport long-range air strikes may not be the most cost-effective and dependable platform.

China's yuan might be better spent buying carriers designed to support coastal operations, such as amphibious assaults to create safe-havens, seize ports, evacuate Chinese citizens or provide humanitarian aid.

Indeed, in the 63 years since 1945, America's aircraft carriers have never once engaged other carriers in battle. Aside from launching air raids, their most important role appears to have often been to help people stricken by disaster, such as survivors of the tsunami which struck Indonesia in 2004, or to evacuate Americans, as in the rout from Vietnam in 1975.

China's unwillingness so far to pour billions of yuan into aircraft carriers may not indicate budget constraints or the limits of technology and fabrication. It may equally suggest that Beijing is biding its time, mulling its options, and seeking cheaper ways -- through innovations in technology or strategy -- to protect its interests and should the day come win the battle.