Whilst Russia’s carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is returning home following her operational use in the conflict in Syria, her sister ship the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning (formerly the Varyag) is on her first cruise.
The Chinese Defence Ministry has described the purpose of Liaoning’s cruise as “scientific research, experiment and training.” In other words it is primarily a training exercise intended to familiarise the Chinese with naval carrier operations in preparation for the much bigger Chinese built carriers which are coming.
It is not however only that. The Chinese have intentionally deployed Liaoning to the South China Sea – the flashpoint in tensions with the US. Its presence there is obviously intended to assert Chinese claims in the South China Sea and to remind the US and other Pacific naval powers of the reality of Chinese power and resolve in this area.
That the Chinese are using Liaoning to make a political demonstration, and that they have more extensive plans for what is till their only naval carrier, has been confirmed by an editorial in the English language Chinese newspaper The Global Times, which is known to reflect the opinions of the Chinese leadership
The role of the Liaoning should not be confined to military technological experiments. It should also test the geopolitical role Chinese aircraft carriers play and the response of major world powers to China’s buildup of its navy.
Aircraft carriers are strategic tools which should be used to show China’s strength to the world and shape the outside world’s attitude toward China. It is not built for war only. Chinese aircraft carriers must set off on a long journey. China’s core interests are mainly offshore, but the range of aircraft carriers must go beyond offshore areas. The rivalry must be extended to wider areas so as to ease China’s offshore pressure.
As China’s only aircraft carrier fleet now, it should have the ability and courage to sail further. It should not only pass the first island chain, but also sail past the second island chain and go to the waters where Chinese cruise fleets have never been.
The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China’s aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the US one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules.
The distant sailing of the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet is not aimed at provoking the US nor at reshaping maritime strategic structure. But if the fleet is able to enter areas where the US has core interests, the situation when the US unilaterally imposes pressure on China will change.
China should speed up launching its new aircraft carriers so as to activate their combat.
In addition, China needs to think about setting up navy supply points in South America right now.
Chinese people love peace, but the Chinese military must be resolute. China will not be easily irritated, but once it is, it will take firm countermeasures. The Liaoning and its fleet is expected to experience the cruel geopolitical competition and become a standard bearer of the Chinese navy.
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This is a straightforward warning of Chinese willingness to engage the US in a naval arms race in the Pacific, with the Chinese navy prepared to challenge the US Navy there as it has never been challenged since it defeated Japan in the Second World War. Moreover the Chinese are openly debating establishing supply points for their navy in South America (one wonders in which countries) in a way that no other power – not even the USSR or Japan – has ever done before.
Despite the editorial’s assurance that China is “not aiming to provoke the US” by these moves, it is impossible to imagine a geopolitical and military-strategic challenge likely to provoke the US more. For the first time in its modern history the US would face a direct military challenge off its own coast and in its own backyard.
There is extensive ongoing debate about the military utility of aircraft carriers, with the claim often made that they are today militarily obsolete as they have become increasingly vulnerable to anti-ship missiles.
Whilst there does appear to be some force to this claim, it arguably holds least truth in the vast area of the Pacific, where fleets are more likely to be deployed beyond the range of land based anti-ship missiles and aircraft. It was after all against Japan in the Pacific during the Second World War, not against Germany or the USSR in the Atlantic in the Second World War and the Cold War, that the aircraft carrier found its greatest use. Indeed on the principle that the military often prepares for the last war rather than the next one, a possibly valid criticism of the US Navy is that it built a carrier based navy during the Cold War more suitable for waging war against a trade dependent island state like Japan than the vast self sufficient continental Soviet superpower it was actually pitted against.
Whilst the threatened Chinese naval build up in the Pacific poses a challenge arguably closer to the one the US Navy has prepared itself to fight, there is a crucial difference. During the Second World War US industrial and technological resources dwarfed Japan’s. Today on the contrary it is China – the US’s Pacific rival – whose industrial resources surpass those of the US. Obviously because of its huge head start the naval balance in the Pacific still vastly favours the US. However in another later editorial The Global Times makes clear China’s resolve to build up its naval forces in the Pacific in order to achieve naval dominance even if this takes fifty years
The Liaoning is used for scientific research and in preparation for wholly Chinese-made aircraft carriers which are under construction. China has a long way to go in building up its own carrier defence. In at least half a century’s time, China will not stop building up its defence. It is clear that in the 21st century, China’s rise has become the new normal.
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Given China’s greater – and growing – resources, this is a challenge the US over time simply cannot win, and the Chinese know it.
There is of course a strong element of posturing in all this. Just as Donald Trump’s moves towards Taiwan are intended to pressure China into making concessions, so Chinese warnings of a naval arms race in the Pacific are a warning to the US to come to terms with China or face the consequences. Indeed the same editorial in The Global Times actually says as much
China has become one of the most powerful countries in the West Pacific, but it does not ask for more rights. China’s core interests have not expanded, and it is open to negotiations for all disputes. China will not confront the US-Japan alliance in deep sea waters, while the two shall never challenge the bottom line of China’s core interests. China will deal a heavy blow to those who act wantonly in its near sea areas.
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As China and a Trump led US prepare to square off against each other, it is a thinly veiled reminder that inside the Chinese velvet glove there is a mailed fist. Donald Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, will hopefully understand and take note.