China at Sea
Comments by China’s national defense spokesman last month make it about as official as it’s going to get: China’s navy is in the market for an aircraft carrier. This is a sign that Beijing sees its ultimate prize within grasp: emergence as East Asia’s pre-eminent great power. So should the region, and the protector of its stability for the last half century, the United States, be worried?
First things first: China is not about to knock America off its perch as the world’s sole superpower. Developing the capacity to deploy aircraft carriers is a feat of incredible complexity. China’s carrier project will take at least a decade to realize, and it will require billions of dollars and a great deal of the country’s military design capacity. Even the Soviet Union found it difficult to master carrier operation, as China knows full well—since 1998 it has bought the hulks of three Soviet carriers to study them. Just forming the flotilla to protect one carrier would require most of the modern ships currently in China’s fleet.
Yet there’s every reason to believe China will achieve its goal eventually and deploy multiple carriers. It will likely start by using aircraft bought from Russia but go on to develop its own weapons systems. China will end up with a much smaller ship than the American super-carriers, with weapons about a generation behind. But this will still put it far ahead of its neighbors—no East Asian country currently has carrier capacity.
So the balance of power in Asia is going to shift dramatically in the decade ahead, and nowhere will the effects be more evident than in the South China Sea. Beijing is already constructing a major naval base on its southern island of Hainan. The naval buildup would give Beijing a freer hand to enforce its claims to South China Sea islands—claims that are disputed by five other countries. The waters through which much of the world’s trade now flows, from the Malacca Strait to Taiwan, would effectively become a Chinese lake.
The timing of the move, too, is significant. China hesitated for years before declaring its intent to develop carrier capability because of the potential reaction of its neighbors. A Chinese aircraft carrier prowling the neighborhood could be the final straw that causes Southeast Asian nations to band together to protect their claims, or strengthen ties with the U.S. In particular, Vietnam has periodically hinted that it might put aside the past and form an alliance with Washington. By building up its military capability, China runs the risk of finding itself worse-off strategically.