About a decade ago the foreign policy establishment was busy dismissing China's efforts to build a powerful, modern military. Writing in the Washington Post in 1997, Michael Swaine, a China specialist then at the RAND corporation, declared that the "enduring deficiencies in China's military logistics system call into question its ability to operate [naval and aviation] weapons over a sustained period, particularly outside China's borders." Well, right now, Chinese naval vessels are deploying in the Gulf of Aden to assist in the international anti-piracy mission. It's 4,000 miles from China to the Gulf of Aden.
Swaine further predicted that China "will remain at least a full generation behind the world's leading military powers." In January 2007, Beijing used a ground-based medium range ballistic missile to destroy one of its own aging weather satellites--an impressive technological accomplishment that only two other nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, have ever achieved.
In 1999, the Brookings scholars Bates Gill and Michael O'Hanlon concluded in an article--"Power Plays .??.??. While There's Less to the Chinese Threat than Meets the Eye," also in the Washington Post--that China's "ballistic missiles will be hard-pressed to defeat Taiwan's military or sink nearby U.S. ships." Yet the Defense Department's 2008 assessment of China's military noted that "PLA planners are focused on targeting surface ships at long ranges from China's shores. .??.??. One area of investment involves combining conventionally-armed ASBMs [anti-ship ballistic missiles] based on .??.??. C4ISR [DoD-speak for command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] for geo-location and tracking of targets, and onboard guidance systems for terminal homing to strike surface ships or their onshore support infrastructure." China's effort to threaten U.S. ships at sea is taken seriously today, as is shown by the debate over whether the Navy's next generation of carrier-based aircraft has sufficient range to accomplish their missions without forcing U.S. carriers to sail within areas of the Pacific to which China seeks to deny access.
A 1998 Foreign Policy Research Institute article written by Avery Goldstein asserted that Beijing was so far behind other advanced industrial states that "successful modernization will leave China with forces by the second or third decade of the next century most of which would have been state of the art in the 1990s." This observation retains some validity, but there is nothing primitive about China's effort to deny the U.S. Navy access to large strategic swaths of the Western Pacific. Indeed, the last few weeks have produced the prospect of another particularly important advance in the Chinese military's steady transformation into a modern, serious, powerful force.
On the last day of 2008, the Asahi Shimbun reported that China is planning to begin construction of two medium-sized aircraft carriers--a contemporary navy's most flexible instrument of power projection--in its Shanghai yards this year. They are scheduled for launch in 2015. The article also repeated widely circulated information that the shipyards in the Yellow Sea port of Dalian are putting the finishing touches on a refurbishment of the 55,000 ton Soviet-built Kuznetsov-class carrier, the Varyag, a vessel that a Chinese company with connections to the People's Liberation Army purchased in 1998 and then towed to China from the Black Sea in 2002.
The Soviet carrier was a good platform to learn--in established Chinese tradition--the architecture, design, and gross characteristics of the aircraft carrier. As a training platform, the Varyag will provide indispensable experience for future carrier pilots and support personnel in the demanding business of naval carrier aviation. China should have three operational aircraft carriers to add to its submarine and surface fleets around the midpoint of the next decade.
All this tracks with the Pentagon's 2008 evaluation of Chinese military power, which noted: "China has an active aircraft carrier research and design program," and "if the leadership were to so choose, the PRC shipbuilding industry could start construction of an indigenous platform by the end of this decade." In November, the director of the foreign affairs office of China's defense ministry, Major General Qian Lihua, told the Financial Times that "the question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier." The following month China's defense ministry spokesman, Huang Xueping, offered similar public comments, observing that the protection of national interests required China to undertake carrier aviation.
Aircraft carriers are not only important as a symbol of a great or growing military power. They are useful and tremendously adaptable instruments of force. We are still only witnessing the beginning of China's naval build-up, but the carriers will have a profound impact on her ability to project military force as disputes with its neighbors, including Japan, over potentially energy-rich sea beds and islands in the South and East China Seas fester. The carriers will also give China greater control over the passage of oil from the Middle East and increase Beijing's military influence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. They will support possible future Chinese claims to Asian hegemony. They will force Japan to consider construction of similar instruments of naval force. The successful operation of the midsize carriers China envisions would lay the operational, logistic, command and control, and tactical foundation for building vessels with the--much greater--striking power and range of the U.S. Navy's Nimitz-class carriers.
That's not all, though. The initial focus of China's carriers is likely to be to the south and west, but the vast Pacific lies immediately beyond the chain of islands and land formations that extend south from Japan through the Philippines. The wide but penetrable moat between these islands and the Chinese mainland offers bastions for her growing force of nuclear-propelled, intercontinental ballistic missile-carrying submarines, as the islands themselves shield China from the open ocean. But the eventual passage of her carriers eastward, beyond the moat, re-establishes the potential for naval competition in the Pacific that disappeared with the defeat of the Imperial Japanese navy in 1945.
This challenge did not appear suddenly like a dragon from the mists of China's famous stone forests. The Chinese have been working towards a naval aviation capability for many years. A summer 2008 Congressional Research Service report noted an Indian naval analyst's observation that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been planning for large naval combatants like carriers and amphibious vessels for a quarter of a century.
A safe and effective naval aviation capability requires mastery of a host of design, operational, logistic, training, and command skills. China has been addressing these deliberately and methodically. Courses for future carrier and amphibious ship commanding officers began at the Guangzhou Naval Academy in 1985. Two years later, the same academy, in sensible imitation of the U.S. Navy's tradition of selecting qualified pilots to command aircraft carriers, initiated a program for young PLAN pilots to prepare them to command ships. These officers are reaching the correct seniority, level of experience, and age to become the PLAN's first carrier commanders. Negotiations with European companies for construction of large amphibious ships took place in the late 1990s. A little over two years ago, the Russian press reported that China was negotiating to purchase as many as 48 SU-33 fighter aircraft, which are built to be launched and recovered by aircraft carriers and can be refueled in flight. In September 2008, an article in Jane's Defence Weekly reported that 50 students had begun a course of study at the Dalian Naval Academy intended to prepare them to become the PLAN's first fixed-wing aircraft carrier pilots.
The Chinese carriers will build on one of the PLAN's most significant accomplishments: the creation of a fleet of attack and ballistic missile submarines. This began, as the carrier program did with the Varyag, with the purchase of Russian subs in the 1990s, specifically the Kilo-class conventional-powered attack submarine of which China now possesses 12 (the Chinese have also acquired powerful surface combatants from Russia). The PLAN's submarine force continues to experience significant growth, in both size and capability, as several new classes of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines armed with rockets of increasing range are being added to its force.
If we assume the year 2020 as a reasonable target for China's gaining genuine competency at naval aviation--particularly the joint operation of carriers with the rest of a fleet--it will have taken just 35 years for China to transform its navy from a large collection of aging World War II landing ships, patrol boats, shore-based aircraft, and submarines with very limited range into a modern naval force with an offensive ballistic missile capability. It will be able to project power and will offer the U.S. Navy a serious challenge in the Pacific. The span is about the same amount of time that it took Japan to turn its coastal defense navy into the battle fleet that destroyed a Russian rival at the Battle of Tsushima Strait in May 1905.
There are numerous similarities between China's and Japan's rise as naval powers. Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward isolated and impoverished China--leaving it with a technologically backward military--as two centuries of Tokugawa rule had isolated and impoverished Japan. Both countries looked abroad for help. China depended initially on Russian naval technology. Japan looked to Holland, France, and especially England to acquire large modern ships as a precursor to developing their own naval industrial base. Both countries depend heavily on the seaborne delivery of critical natural resources. China and Japan--at different times, of course, and at significantly different degrees of national assertiveness--looked to naval forces as the symbol and instrument of broader regional and international ambitions. Japan built a world-class navy in three and a half decades with large strategic consequences for America and the world. China is well on its way toward a similar accomplishment, with the potential for similar consequences.
The U.S. Navy's response to the PLAN's deliberate and steady progress has been diffident. Dismissive of increasing Chinese naval capabilities at first, U.S. naval commentators have lately adopted a more harmonious position as the gulf between the PLAN's reach and grasp has narrowed. Admiral Dennis Blair, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and now in line to become the new administration's director of national intelligence, wrote in 2007 that "China is on a positive trajectory" and argued that "the U.S. should offer to involve China in bilateral and multilateral military operations for the common good." Thomas Barnett, a researcher and a professor at the Naval War College until 2004, urged in a 2005 article ("The Chinese Are Our Friends") in Esquire that the president stop the "rising tide of Pentagon propaganda on the Chinese 'threat' and tell Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld .??.??. that our trigger pullers on the ground today deserve everything they need to conduct counterinsurgency operations."
Whether or not it shares these views of Chinese benignity, the Navy has drifted in recent years. At about 280 combatants, fleet size today is less than half its level during the Reagan administration. The Navy says it needs an additional 33 ships to carry out its various global missions, but the needed increase eludes its leadership. The costs of shipbuilding have increased without effective restraint, and one new class of large surface combatants--the Zumwalt class of destroyers--was cancelled. Another--the Littoral Combat ship--saw overruns double the cost of the first ship and the number to be purchased fall by nearly a fifth. (The price remains stratospheric for a vessel whose most immediate mission would be to chase speedboat-borne pirates.) The programs to replace aircraft carriers as they reach the end of their useful service lives are in irons as a result of a clash between previous DoD decisions that restrict the size of the next carrier and the expansive requirements of the critical systems planned for the next generation of carriers.
Even without the likelihood that China's next large step in developing its navy is the addition of aircraft carriers, the United States needed to increase its combatant fleet. Continued missteps that result in a diminishing U.S. Navy at the same time that China's naval force grows are an invitation to change the balance of power in Asia, the Pacific, and the world.
The Obama administration should use part of its proposed economic stimulus package to begin a naval restoration program that will increase the combatant fleet by at least 15 percent before 2016, and the program should not be relegated to future budget years, which are as changeable as the weather. A Naval Recovery Act should include an immediate advance in the schedule for constructing a new carrier, thus eliminating the undesirable possibility that the Navy will be short one for several years. Similar efforts should aim at drawing Japan closer, developing our connections with the Indian navy, reestablishing a naval base in the Philippines, and building a relationship with Vietnam that could eventually support a U.S. naval presence. Offsetting China's efforts to deny the United States access to our Western Pacific friends and allies requires thoughtful statecraft as well as effective naval forces.
Allowing the current U.S. naval slippage to continue will result in a combat fleet of a size we haven't seen since 1911. Combined with the parallel growth in the Chinese navy and the certainty that Beijing's leadership will use it to fill the vacuums created by a diminishing U.S. naval presence, this would be more damaging and strategically far-reaching than any of the Bush administration's mistakes. The PLAN's likely entry into carrier aviation is interesting for what it says about China's long-term strategy and objectives. How we respond is far more important.