China’s first aircraft carrier is back at sea.
The ex-Ukrainian warship has spent more than a decade being refurbished and modified in Chinese shipyards, and only had its maiden voyage in August of this year. To the world, Shi Lang (the carrier’s rumoured Chinese name) is the latest unsettling example of Beijing’s rapid military modernization. For China’s maritime neighbours, she also represents a powerful and unmatched addition to Beijing’s naval arsenal. This deepening of an already-inferior military balance has the region fearing that it will embolden China’s already-aggressive approach to territorial disputes, particularly in the South China Sea.
These fears may be somewhat misplaced and premature. China’s first aircraft carrier must be understood as a military asset and as a symbol of national prestige. As the newest addition to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Shi Lang is simultaneously China’s first hard naval power projection asset and the latest testament to the nation’s ever-increasing economic and military capability. But examined more closely, the carrier’s impact is far more nuanced than first believed.
While it is a genuine concern, China’s naval power projection is still a capability in development. On its own, Shi Lang does not significantly alter the global or regional naval balance. One must not forget to differentiate between possession and effective operation – simply having a carrier is not immediately equivalent to the military power and political influence of an American carrier strike group. After all, if this were the case, Thailand should have undisputed primacy in the South China Sea.
As with all military equipment, an aircraft carrier is only as effective to the extent that the operator has the skills and knowledge to utilize it. In order to project Chinese power, Shi Lang will have to sail beyond the protection of Chinese coastal defences, and thus require a group of escorts and accompanying logistical replenishment support. The PLAN remains relatively inexperienced in operating naval task forces away from home waters, and it does not have adequate fleet protection. Despite a numerical surge, China’s naval forces are heavily dependent on land-based aerial surveillance, combat aircraft, and coastal batteries. Worse, its submarine fleet and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities are critically weak. It will be some time before the PLAN can mount effective carrier operations away from home waters.
Even then, Shi Lang’s potential will be severely limited by her inherent design. The lack of catapult launch technology means that her strike aircraft will have to use the ski jump to take off, limiting their payload and fuel. This is particularly daunting for China since it has chosen the heavy and unproven Sukhoi SU-33 as its primary naval combat aircraft. Worse, the lack of catapults also precludes the use of fixed-wing airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft and aerial refueling tankers. Taken together, these shortcomings mean Shi Lang will not have the strike range or autonomous operation capability anywhere close to its American counterparts.
It is thus likely that Shi Lang is China’s ‘starter carrier.’ Rather than a fully-operational warship, she will serve as a training platform on which the PLAN can experiment and refine carrier doctrine and gain operational experience. A period of trial and error will yield lessons learned that can then be incorporated into future Chinese aircraft carrier design and operation.
While Shi Lang’s military importance may not be as serious as first thought, her symbolism cannot be understated. Like the new Chinese stealth fighter unveiled earlier this year, an aircraft carrier is a widely-recognizable item of tangible military power. It represents China’s economic power and industrial capacity as well as its mastery of complex military technologies. Domestically, there is no doubt that the carrier launch was a source of great nationalist pride. Shi Lang signaled, at least for Chinese patriots, an end to China’s ‘century of humiliation’ by the West and a return to the Middle Kingdom narrative. The fear is that the accomplishment will embolden China to assert its foreign policy more aggressively. The danger becomes especially potent when combined with increasing nationalist sentiment to do so.
Notwithstanding the military limitations above, a fully-operational Shi Lang can undoubtedly contribute to China’s foreign policy. Diplomatically, she can tangibly raise China’s ‘soft power’ profile through port visits and be used for non-military operations like regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. There is also no doubt that Shi Lang can be used to coerce weaker countries to do Beijing’s bidding. However, her effectiveness in this regard depends largely on those neighbours perceiving the threat to be genuine. To be sure, even a small PLAN task force could wreak substantial havoc in a militarily-weak Southeast Asia. But China is unlikely to do so. Resorting to military strikes would not only admit diplomatic failure but also instantly justify a decade of Western strategic literature trumpeting Sino aggression. Indeed, the mere sailing of a carrier into the South China Sea could be inflammatory. Beijing would have to consider such a move carefully.
More importantly, Shi Lang has put China’s neighbours on notice. It is no surprise that, even before its public unveiling in June, many Asian countries (including Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia) have or are acquiring modern submarines to capitalize on the region’s deep waters and the PLAN’s weak ASW capabilities. When combined with the acquisition of new attack aircraft, this significantly increases the region’s ability to hold China’s naval assets at risk. Whether Beijing is willing to accept even minor damage to Shi Lang or her air group – and thus its international prestige – is debatable. Despite capable escorts, aircraft carriers are inviting targets in a high-intensity confrontation. Indeed, a Chinese naval presence in the South China Sea can just as easily be accomplished with other modern warships in the PLAN inventory – it does not need to risk a carrier.
That having been said, Shi Lang nonetheless represents a stark departure from China’s existing maritime strategy. An aircraft carrier is a power projection asset that does not fit into Beijing’s defensive policy of ‘anti-access and area denial’ (A2/AD). Indeed, it would mean shedding many A2/AD advantages – the farther a PLAN force goes from the protection of its coastal defences, the more vulnerable it becomes to other countries’ naval and land-based defences. Nor does Shi Lang apply to the Taiwan issue – a carrier will make very little impact in the already-lopsided military calculus in the Taiwan Strait. In this respect Shi Lang is therefore likely the tip of an entirely different PLAN spear – one in which the PLAN will become increasingly more regionally active. China may be looking a long way into the future, envisioning itself displacing the United States as the dominant power in the region. Given the difficulty in developing doctrine and the political challenges at home and abroad in developing such a force, this is a future that is probably several decades away – approximately the same time it will take for the PLAN carrier capability to mature.
We must therefore be careful not to exaggerate or underestimate Shi Lang’s importance. Its current shortcomings in operational capability and the larger doctrinal issues with a ‘blue-water’ PLAN fleet mean that Shi Lang’s immediate impact will be slight. Symbolically, the carrier ignites the nationalist passions of many Chinese patriots who see it as a means towards regaining China’s historical regional glory. It is also undoubtedly a milestone in Chinese naval development and a likely indication of China’s future regional foreign policy. This future is far enough over the horizon that China’s neighbours and the United States have ample time to prepare themselves. This realization may be Shi Lang’s greatest impact.
Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. He is currently assistant publisher at Global Brief magazine and is an affiliated analyst for Polaris Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based geo-political consultancy start-up. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific. This post is an updated summary of an assessment on China’s aircraft carrier for Polaris Strategies in September 2011.