Thursday, November 27, 2008

China’s carrier plans worry region

By Yu Tsung-chi 余宗基

Friday, Nov 28, 2008, Page 8

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Chinese Major General Qian Lihua (錢利華), director of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office, said China has every right to build aircraft carriers, without confirming whether it had decided to do so. This enigmatic remark stirred fresh speculation about China’s intentions in developing or acquiring the carriers in light of its economic rise.

China’s intention to build up its own aircraft carriers, viewed as an essential component of building the “blue water” navy able to deploy beyond its coastal waters, has not surprised China watchers. In fact, China has already invested decades of effort in its bid to acquire or develop a monstrous warship.

In 1975 Admiral Liu Huaqing (劉華清), vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, highlighted for first time that China must establish its own aircraft carrier battle group(s) to secure sea lines of communication and protect national sovereignty.

Liu said the goal of developing aircraft carriers was not to start an arms race with the US or the Soviet Union but to meet the requirements for a potential military struggle with Taiwan, settle potential conflicts in the South China Sea, protect its maritime resources, enable China to keep up with regional powers such as India and Japan, give the Chinese navy a decisive edge in future warfare, and participate in the world peacekeeping.

China has purchased four decommissioned carriers: the Melbourne (1985), the Varyag (1998), the Minsk (1998) and the Kiev (2000) from Australia, Ukraine and Russia respectively. Only the Varyag, now docked in Dalien, seems to be a candidate for refurbishment to operational status after photos seen in December 2005 appeared to show activity on the deck to apply new coatings consistent with aircraft operations.

Some specialists, however, believe that these four carriers — which are different in terms of function, designation and structure — must have been used to expedite China’s research and development capabilities in developing its own model.

There have been many reports regarding China’s aircraft carrier intentions. In October 2006, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Russia had signed a US$2.5 billion arms sale contract with China to deliver 48 SU-33 fighters, which the Sukhoi Aviation Bureau designed specifically for carrier operations.

In March last year, a Beijing-backed Hong-Kong newspaper reported that China could have its first aircraft carrier by 2010. Rick Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center and an expert on the Chinese military, concurred with that report. He believes that “before the end of this decade, we will see preparations for China to build its first indigenous aircraft carrier.”

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last month that the People’s Liberation Army was training the first batch of 50 cadets to become naval pilots capable of operating aircraft from the mock-up carrier at the Dalian Naval Academy.

All this is evidence that China has a more ambitious and impending timetable than many might think. An aircraft carrier is perceived as a potent symbol of national power, and China is expected to finish building its first aircraft carrier within two to five years.

Such a scenario is cause for concern in East Asia, especially among countries that claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, and will definitely have a great impact on other countries in the region — India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and of course, Taiwan — as well as the US.

The case of Taiwan is especially noticeable because if the Varyag can be transformed into China’s first aircraft carrier battle group, it would have a great impact on Taiwan’s defensive operation.

By then, Taiwan’s operational forces would be kept at bay because China’s aircraft carrier(s) could sail off Taiwan’s east coast, beyond the radius of action of fighter jets. This could not only deter foreign forces coming to Taiwan’s aid, but also allow China to attack Taiwan from both sides.

Subsequently, Taiwan’s “forces reservation” at a preliminary stage in east Taiwan, where it reportedly can protect more than half of its sophisticated fighter aircraft, would also be challenged by China’s new capabilities.

Although submarines are believed is the best deterrent to aircraft carriers, Taiwan only has four submarines — two World War II-era subs from the Soviet Union and two Dutch subs imported in the 1980s. These outdated subs are obviously ill-suited to deter China’s new carrier equipped with the state-of-the-art weapon systems supported by Russia.

To remedy the cross-strait status quo tilting in China’s favor, the US must review the hold-up on its offer to sell Taiwan eight submarines. After all, any policy disregarding the Taiwan Relations Act would endanger the equilibrium in the Taiwan Strait and increase the likelihood of war that would involve the US.

An aircraft carrier is also a long-range power project weapon. Such a weapon in China’s hands could serve as augury for China’s rise and to determine if its intentions are hostile.

Some specialists have said that growing Chinese international stature and self-confidence also means fewer releases of human rights activists, less reticence about openly pursuing its military development, and increasing defiance when confronted with criticism.

The US, India and Japan would also be anxious about the prospects of carriers, about how they will be used in the Chinese fleet and what impact they will have on China’s foreign policy.

China’s military actions in recent years are particularly alarming. In April 2001 China ignored international law in holding a US EP3 flight crew for 12 days; in November 2006 a Chinese submarine surfaced in the vicinity of a US Navy aircraft battle group in the East China Sea; in January last year China launched its anti-satellite weapon without a public notice, putting at risk other nations’ space assets.

Even as cross-strait relations are thawing, China has not hesitated to deploy cutting-edge YJ-62 guided missiles with a maximum range in excess of 400km along the southeast coastline opposite Taiwan. These missiles are a military threat and hostile gesture toward not only Taiwan but toward all of China’s neighbors.

This is clearly at odds with China’s claim of peaceful rise or peaceful development. In fact, improving Sino-American strategic relations are conditioned upon China not challenging US global leadership, a position that Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed. China’s rigorous military reach-out, however, is now being interpreted otherwise. The more China’s flexes its military muscle the more defiant it may become.

To mollify its neighbors’ worries, it would behoove China to explain the purposes and intentions behind its carrier-building program. The more transparent China is about its military and security affairs, the less other nation’s militaries have to assume the worst and respond accordingly, leading to potential misunderstandings, miscalculations and an action-reaction cycle of military preparations, to the detriment of all sides.

Yu Tsung-chi is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in the US.
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