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The debate over China's aircraft carrier program
You Ji, The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief
Elsewhere, Ian Storey and I have both argued that the PLA's aircraft carrier program is shelved but not canceled altogether.  Profound political and military factors are at work to delay construction, but the idea of China possessing carriers is not dead. In other words, the debate is continuing both within PLA leadership and among interested members of the public. That the aircraft carrier serves as an unfulfilled national ambition still inspires both the PLA and the population. However, Chinese pragmatism propels the Beijing government to concentrate on expedient security considerations, not by vane displays of power.
Not Compatible with Warfare in the IT Age
The carrier debate in China is deeply rooted in a larger debate among Chinese strategists: what weapon is best suited for the IT (information technology) age? This is related to the debate over what type of warfare the PLA could be involved in during the IT age. The dominant view of PLA commanders is that the first Gulf War of 1991 was America's last war of the industrial age aimed at destroying the enemy's military machine. Warfare in the IT age, however, is most likely to be in the form of non-engagement. Information warfare (IW) capabilities will be more crucial than conventional firepower. Paralyzing the enemy's capability through information systems leads to its rapid collapse. Aircraft carriers as a good platform for delivering fire power and anchoring IW measures are important but not indispensable over time. Hence, other more cost effective IW anchorages will emerge.
Not Compatible with the PLA's New National Defense Strategy
In 2002 the PLA put forward a new national defense strategy focusing on the IT transformation of the Chinese military. A major component of the strategy is the so-called generation leap (from the industrial age to the IT age). To PLA strategists, the characterization of force modernization in the industrial age is mechanization (platform-centric), while in the IT age, it is informatization defined in terms of systems integration (network centric). Apparently aircraft carriers are considered to belong to the former. Although warfare is conducted between platforms, aircraft carriers being the best of them, victory is decided by the IT systems. Under the guidance of this new strategy, the priority of weapons Research and Development has been set on enhancing the IT transformation of the PLA, with the network-centric capabilities attracting increased funding. Costly carriers do not enjoy significant leadership attention.
Not Compatible with the PLA's War Preparation
In 1999 the PLA top command issued an order to accelerate preparations for war following the events of the Chinese embassy bombing and Lee Teng-hui's move for Taiwan's independence (his two-state-thesis). IW dominated action in the Taiwan Strait with U.S. involvement has been identified as the inevitable scenario the PLA must confront.  This has three negative impacts on the Navy's carrier project. First, if the U.S. is seen as the potential object of engagement, no Chinese carrier could survive the first few days of war. Second, if the PLA's future war is to take place in the Strait, it will most likely be through actions of non-engagement in the form of counter-force through IT or missile warfare. After all, a Taiwan war is a war of politics, not one of invasion. The aim is to cripple Taiwan's key defense assets rather than to kill large numbers of Taiwanese soldiers and civilians. Within a geographic range of two hundred miles, the use of the aircraft carrier is in question. Third, as the focal point of China's security has shifted to the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea is no longer an area of major concern for the navy. The aircraft carrier won its day of attention exactly due to the Spratly focus in the late 1980s. The strategic urgency for it has since greatly diminished.
Not Compatible with the Navy's Immediate Combat Plans
Although the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a long-term blue war ambition, its current posture is basically defensive. Apart from the Taiwan scenario, which is offensively oriented, the naval missions in the near term can be described as achieving sea control and sea denial effect. Sea control refers to effective defense of China's three offshore narrows: the Bohai Sea Strait, the Taiwan Strait, and the Qiongzhou Strait. Of these, the Bohai is the top priority, as it protects Beijing. The Taiwan Strait is also vital, because it allows the PLAN access to the western Pacific. Sea control capability is crucial for deterring Taidu, or Taiwanese independence. It also leads to defensive campaigns against invading fleets in waters adjacent to major coastal cities, such as Shanghai (in the case of U.S. involvement).
Sea denial means maritime defense in depth, a strategy resembling Japan's 1,000 nautical miles (nm) ocean security guidance. This defense perimeter is just outside the strategic Bohai channel and the Taiwan Strait, and is extended towards the first island chain in the west Pacific, about 200 to 250 nm from home. The denial takes the form of disrupting the enemy's sea lines of communication (SLOCs), or at protecting China's key traffic lines. It constitutes the outer shield of maritime defense for the PLAN, in addition to the first layer of coastal line defense needed for sea control. Sea denial is designed to break any blockade against China within the first island-chain in the next decade or so.  It is important to note that in the PLA war plan, sea control or denial is to be achieved not across a large horizontal geographic area but in a few vertically distributed lanes. It need not be comprehensive but is based on partial superiority of a limited time vis-à-vis the opponent. Obviously the aircraft carrier could not be of significant practical value to these combat models for the Chinese navy.
Not Compatible with China's Foreign Policy Strategy
Last but not least, there are technological and budgetary constraints, and the idea that the aircraft carrier is at odds with China's current foreign policy priority. First, the carrier as a long range power project weapon could provide an excuse for global alarmist voices against China's peaceful rise. Worse still, it may serve as proof for the U.S. to regard Beijing as a strategic competitor. In fact, the best state of Sino-American relations is conditioned upon China not challenging U.S. global leadership, stated many times by China's new leaders. Overtly rigorous military reach-out may be interpreted otherwise. Secondly, Chinese aircraft carriers would cause concern in East Asia, especially among the Spratly claimants. This could be counter-productive to Beijing's concentration on the Taiwan situation, as it needs strong regional support to deter Taipei's move towards de jure independence.
The Aircraft Carrier is Dead, Long Live the Aircraft Carrier
Against all odds mentioned above, the feelings for aircraft carriers are still strong among Chinese sailors and ordinary citizens who long to see carriers of their own. Even the leadership has not scrapped the project altogether. Only has the reality of the changed times been temporarily accepted. The reason being, aircraft carriers possess many fighting capabilities that remain attractive to the Navy. The PLA will not stay within the first island chain forever. Control of air is now the precondition for sea control and denial. A carrier can be a great platform from which to mount IT warfare measures, too. Very importantly, research on aircraft carriers can be useful in studying the weaknesses of carriers, useful for dealing with carrier battle groups. This practical consideration has been behind the continued research effort.
In addition to these factors, reality does change over time: the Taiwan situation can be eased and Sino-US relations can be stabilized. The relevance of aircraft carrier capability to PLA modernization has not disappeared completely. Beijing may focus its attention on the South China Sea dispute again, and use a different method to come to a solution in the future. Aircraft carriers are perceived as potent symbols of national power around the world, and China is no different. It could make its peaceful rise more powerful. Therefore, the Chinese leaders may change their minds on carriers in the future.
Dr. You Ji is Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations at the University of New South Wales.
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