Sep 26, 2012 | 06:17 GMT

6 mins read

China's New Aircraft Carrier in Perspective

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

China's first aircraft carrier was formally commissioned Sept. 25, nearly 15 years after a Hong Kong-based travel agency purchased the unfinished Soviet-era Varyag at a Ukrainian auction. China sees the introduction of the carrier as the culmination of a long struggle to gain global respect and establish a firm standing among the major global powers, not just as a manufacturing center, but as an equal on all terms — economic, political and military.

The recently re-christened Liaoning, which completed its tenth and final sea trial a month ago, enters service at a time of intense focus on Chinese naval capabilities. Beijing and Tokyo continue to square off over control of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and China has spent the last several years acting in a more assertive manner in the South China Sea, confronting conflicting claims with the Philippines and Vietnam, and challenging U.S. Navy action in the area.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Chinese commentators already have asserted that Chinese aircraft carrier capability would significantly improve its strategic position in its island claims. Yet Beijing gave the Liaoning hull number 16 — a two-digit rather than three-digit code identifying it as a training rather than a combat ship.

This dichotomy — the assertion of Chinese arrival on the global military stage contrasting with the attempt to downplay any aggressive intent in China's military evolution — gets to the core of China's current situation. As China asserts its military prowess, it risks eliciting responses from neighbors who would want to counter China's rising, but not yet developed, capabilities. Despite the buildup of the Chinese military amid three decades of domestic economic growth, China remains vulnerable. Considerable internal stresses include a widening gap between economic and social developments, and the stagnation of the one-party political system. Further, China faces the age-old problem of a traditional continental power attempting to press outward into the maritime sphere.

Although it has a long coastline, throughout its history China has focused on its interior and on its even longer land borders. Most of China's natural resources and human capital are easily accessed via land routes, and most of its security threats lie along its land borders. As a result, China has rarely built out a strong navy — it hasn't even encouraged the development of an active maritime merchant fleet. There have certainly been moments of intense maritime activity — the Yuan dynasty's invasion of Japan in the late 13th Century and Zheng He's famous treasure fleet in the early 14th century stand out as examples. Yet even in defending against Japanese piracy, China primarily focused its efforts on defeating the Japanese on land or shifting supply routes away from the coast.

The arrival of Western warships in the mid-19th century shook China's traditional pattern of behavior. Even more striking were Japan's victory in the Sino-Japanese war at the end of that century and Japan's subsequent victory in the Russo-Japanese war at the beginning of the 20th century. China's system, already stressed, failed to stand up to the Europeans. But the emergence of a competing Asian power — one that could defeat not only the Chinese but the Europeans as well — completely shocked the Chinese. Japan's emergence forced China to rethink its views on maritime power.

Yet China remained inwardly focused for most of the 20th century, forced to deal with internal instability, Japanese invasion, civil war, chaos during the Mao years, and the management of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. It was really not until the 1990s, when China was clearly emerging as the new hub of global manufacturing, that China shifted attention to improving its naval capability beyond a coastal defense force. China's need for commodity imports and overseas markets had exposed a strategic vulnerability of its economic model. 

The military evolution accompanied a more assertive political stance in territorial issues. In addition to increasing low-level confrontations with Japan and the Philippines over island sovereignty, China became more aggressive in countering U.S. naval activity near its coastal waters, as seen with the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. intelligence-gathering aircraft, among other incidents.

To some degree, the development of naval power is not just a question of military capability for China. It is an assertion that China can counter the encroachment of Western military power — that it is no longer weak as it was during the Qing Dynasty. The Chinese navy is also considering operations further from Chinese shores. The navy is gaining experience through anti-piracy patrols off the east coast of Africa and is expanding its own satellite system for positioning and guidance.

But while the Chinese navy has improved markedly over the past decade, it has limited projection capability and remains largely locked in a coastal defense role. China's land-based missiles and aircraft add to the defensive power of its fleet, but its actions are largely constrained to the East and South China Seas. The addition of the Liaoning would allow the Chinese to move air assets further from their shore, giving them additional capabilities within the narrow confines of the East and South China Seas. But in building toward enhanced blue-water capabilities, it also sends a very aggressive signal to China's maritime neighbors.

And this creates a dilemma for Beijing. On one hand, China wants to demonstrate its growing military power. Beijing wants to use the threat of force to dissuade the United States from encroaching in China's sphere of influence and to add leverage to China's demands regarding its neighbors. But the threat of military capability precedes China's capability to actually use it. China's regional rivals have recognized the threat and are adjusting to it. Expansions of naval and anti-ship and anti-submarine capabilities are occurring throughout the Asia-Pacific region — hand-in-hand with the development and enhancement of defense partnerships and alliance structures.

Even as the Liaoning serves primarily as a training tool — and a symbol of China's growing intent to secure and defend its interests — it has highlighted the political pitfalls of China's effort to build a better navy. The carrier itself will not alter China's overall naval capabilities in the short term, nor will it help Beijing more effectively defend its maritime claims. But it already has lent greater credence to the international perception that China is increasingly aggressive.

As China's navy continues to evolve, the response from surrounding countries may lead to just the opposite of what Beijing wishes — namely, to the formation of an oceanic great wall, one not designed to keep China's enemies out, but rather to keep China locked in.

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