Why Asia is Wary of China’s New Aircraft Carrier

Why Asia is Wary of China’s New Aircraft Carrier
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

China's military developments are incompatible with its claim to a ‘peaceful rise' and its argument that its military buildup is aimed at self-defense.

China has launched its second aircraft carrier — and its first ever built domestically. In its bid to develop into a naval power, China is keen on modernizing its weaponry and reportedly plans to increase the number of carriers to at least four. Its neighbors are wary of such moves, particularly the increase in carrier fleets that will supposedly be charged with attacking China’s enemies in remote locations.

China’s recent naval advances in the East and South China seas are causing friction with Japan and Southeast Asian nations. These developments are incompatible with China’s claim to a “peaceful rise” and Beijing’s argument that its military buildup is aimed at self-defense. It has an obligation to explain to the international community what kind of power it seeks to become with the buildup of its naval capabilities.

The basic structure of the second aircraft carrier, provisionally known as the Type 001A, is the same as the first carrier, which was originally a Soviet-designed Kuznetsov-class “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser.” China in 1998 purchased the Soviet vessel Varyag, which was 70 percent complete, from Ukraine and later started refitting it in Dalian, Liaoning province. The refitting was completed in 2011 and it was renamed the Liaoning in 2012. The second carrier, built in Dalian with a displacement of 50,000 tons, is slightly smaller than the Liaoning, which has a displacement of 67,000 tons. According to a Chinese media report, however, the new vessel will be capable of carrying more aircraft than the Liaoning.

Following its launch Wednesday, China reportedly plans to commission the new carrier sometime around 2020 after test cruises and takeoff and landing training. Unlike U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, both the Liaoning and the new carrier are not equipped with aircraft catapults and instead rely on a ski jump-style deck to launch aircraft.

A Taiwanese newspaper has reported that the new carrier may be named the Shandong and be based in Qingdao, Shandong province. It should be noted that China is making efforts to bolster its military unit and local administration that exercise jurisdiction over the South China Sea. This year, China appointed a naval officer as commander of the South Battle Zone and tapped a former head of the State Oceanic Administration as secretary of the Communist Party Committee of Hainan province, the top political position in the province. It needs to be carefully monitored whether the aircraft carrier Liaoning, now based in Qindao, will be assigned to the South Battle Zone if and when the new carrier is deployed to Qingdao.

In December, the Liaoning sailed into the western Pacific for the first time, by passing through the Miyako Strait between Okinawa Prefecture’s Okinawa Island and Miyako Island. In January, it demonstrated its presence in the South China Sea by carrying out takeoff, landing, flight refueling and air combat drills involving domestically developed J-15 jet fighters — the first such exercise by China in that sea. While sailing south and then back north, the carrier passed by both the western and eastern coasts of Taiwan — an apparent attempt to send a warning to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who had recently held a telephone conversation with then-U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Internal documents of the People’s Liberation Army Navy show that Beijing plans to develop a nuclear-powered propulsion system for aircraft carriers, an electromagnetic aircraft launch system and carrier-borne unmanned aircraft. Senior ranks of the PLA Navy call for expanding China’s naval sphere of influence in the Pacific and Indian oceans by reinforcing its submarine-launched ballistic missiles and amphibious assault ships as strategic equipment. There is also a report that it is building a catapult-equipped aircraft carrier in Shanghai.

According to an estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s defense spending last year topped ¥25 trillion, the world’s second-largest after the United States and 50 percent larger than the roughly ¥16.5 trillion officially disclosed by Beijing. Taiwanese authorities estimate China’s military spending is two to three times larger than the official figures because they do not include expenses for research and development of defense equipment, the cost of weapons imports and export revenue. At the very least China needs to make its military spending more transparent. President Xi Jinping (習近平) should realize that his control of the military is being closely monitored by other nations.

To help dispel concerns about its military ambitions, China should clearly explain the aims of its defense buildup to countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including the U.S., Japan, ASEAN members, Australia and India.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

TNL Editor: Olivia Yang