Washington: While China is still decades away from fielding an aircraft carrier, putting a domestically-built carrier in the water will be a huge political victory for the rising superpower, experts say.
Steaming a Chinese aircraft carrier into naval bases in Italy, or conducting exercises off the west coast of the U.S. would send a strong signal to the international community that Beijing is a major player in strategic maritime operations, Dean Cheng, a Chinese military expert at the Heritage Foundation, said. For example, China deployed a destroyer into the Mediterranean when the Libyan conflict flared.
Once China build a carrier, the South China Sea will become an even more fractious place for U.S., allied and regional ships to operate. A China able to boast a carrier could make regional waters more dangerous than they already are, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The issue of a Chinese navy bolstered by a carrier arose during the nomination hearing this week of presumptive Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. Sen. John McCain grilled Greenert on that very scenario during his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday.
McCain disputed a recent report in the Wall Street Journal that Beijing planed to use the ship for strictly defensive purposes.
Noting China’s recent aggressiveness in areas like South China Sea, and that aircraft carriers are instruments for projecting military power, McCain asked Greenert point blank: “Doesn’t all this put together a picture for you?”
In response, Greenert said there remains “some question…as to what their intent is,” but admitted “by virtue of being an aircraft carrier, it’s typically offensive. It’s made to project power.”
The problem is that defense officials inside and outside the Pentagon have no idea what capabilities China’s domestically-built carriers will possess, Cheng said.
DoD officials have gleaned some idea of future Chinese carrier capabilities from the country’s ongoing work to refurbish a handful of old Soviet carriers, Chang pointed out.
But exactly how that ongoing work would be tied into the new Chinese-built ships or how it would affect that ship’s future capabilities is anyone’s guess, he said.
But early on, Beijing would likely task the ship with non-combat missions such as humanitarian operations since the military would have to “spend a long time learning” about carrier operations, Glazer noted.
But once the Chinese learn, that mission set will almost certainly change, since “capabilities drive missions,” she said.
Cheng agreed that humanitarian operations could be done by the new carrier, but argued that if China wanted to boost its capabilities in that area it would have built more hospital ships, not an aircraft carrier.
But China’s efforts to get a carrier built is clear indicator that the era of the aircraft carrier as a tool for power projection is not dead — at least to military leaders in the People’s Liberation Army.
As proof, China named the new carrier after a Chinese emperor from the Ming dynasty who conquered Taiwan, according to Cheng.
“There are no coincidences,” he added.