Building a carrier responsibly

By Shen Dingli
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 29, 2011
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There is some debate over whether China will build an aircraft carrier in the future.

According to the Western media, China's State Oceanic Administration (SOA) issued a report in May 2010 on China's maritime development admitting that the government had approved a plan a year ago to build an aircraft carrier, though no confirmation could be found on the official SOA website.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for an aircraft carrier to defend itself. This is so due to the development of anti-carrier weapons systems. The modern strike warplane is stealthier than ever, avoiding radar detection. The modern attack submarine is also increasingly harder to detect as it becomes quieter. Though anti-stealth technology is getting more sophisticated, state-of-the-art missile attack capabilities are also on the rise, especially ultra-sonic, low-flying stealth missiles launched.

Therefore, aircraft carriers have become less relevant to interstate relations among major powers than they used to be. The U.S. navy is more concerned about China's near-sea area-denial capacity through missile deterrence. In the same vein, China's nascent aircraft carrier, the former Varyag, which could be revamped and refitted as Beijing's first such surface platform, is also unable to defend itself in a conflict with another major power.

So what is the rationale to develop an indefensible carrier? Apparently, no single weapon is by design absolutely self-defensible. There is no absolutely secure tank or aircraft yet, and possibly never will be. No stealth warplane or warship would be completely defensible forever. As defense technology advances, offensive technology will also develop. There is a permanent tug-of-war between defense and offense, with neither side gaining the upper hand.

In terms of war, a carrier force presents lesser powers with a formidable threat wherever air dominance and suppression are at issue. In turn, such an advantage translates into political benefits. As long as there exist overlapping claims of interest, stakeholders will need to back their political and economic positions with military strength. By no means would this assure China sets the terms for negotiation, but at least it would assure that it would not come to the bargaining table under some other country's terms.

Even among the major powers, a carrier force would assure that China could retain a range of effective policy options. In an ever co-dependent world, it is hard to foresee significant military confrontation between major powers, but it is also hard to guarantee that there is no conflict of interests between them. One would not forget that in the mid-1990s, the U.S. dispatched two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Straits, in order to restrict Chinese mainland's policy choices vis-à-vis the challenge from the pro-independence force in Taiwan. It is hard to preclude that such a coercive exercise in power politics will not recur in the future. Therefore, by building an aircraft carrier, China would help Beijing to back its legitimate political objectives. China wants peace, but it believes that peace must be sustained by sovereignty and fairness rather than foreign coercion.

Can China afford a carrier? For quite some time, there have been arguments that building a carrier could be too expensive. That might have been true in the past, but the situation is changing. Even if building a carrier would cost tens of billions of U.S. dollars, the People's Liberation Army could still afford to build a few with its budget this year. As the process of building the carrier force could stretch over a decade or longer, the annual share of defense spending could be as low as a few percentage of the present budget, or even smaller a few years later as the defense budget grows. China's defense budget more than quadrupled in 2000s. Certainly, China's armed forces would like to save its resources for the most needed items, but a carrier project will be a part of its targeted list.

To conclude, one doesn't need to build a weapons system until it is guaranteed to be defensible. And there is no reason that China could not afford an aircraft carrier or two. Acquiring the carrier capacity would allow China more chances to establish its sovereignty and independent foreign policy. Of course, there are two challenges ahead: Does China have the technical competence needed to attain the carrier force? And how will its neighbors see the move? For the former, history has repeatedly vindicated the notion that the right technology will seldom be at one's disposal without first attempting to develop it independently. For the latter, China needs to present its carrier force as a way to assure the stability of the region, strengthening its security rather than bullying smaller neighbors.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit

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