Territorial claims drive China’s interest

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Territorial claims drive China’s interest

Post by USS ALASKA » Mon Jan 05, 2009 2:20 pm

Aviation Week & Space Technology
January 5, 2009

A Longer Reach

Territorial claims drive China’s interest in operating combat aircraft at sea

By Bradley Perrett, Beijing

A Chinese aircraft carrier force, extending Beijing’s reach at least as far as the northeastern entrances of Indian Ocean, looks almost inevitable following endorsements from senior officials.

The likely initial purpose of the carriers will be to back Chinese claims in the South China Sea, not to create an oceanic power-projection capability.

While plans for a Chinese aircraft carrier have been the source of speculation for at least a quarter of a century, strong evidence has been piling up in the past few weeks.

The clincher comes from a Ministry of National Defense representative, Col. Huang Xueping. Instead of brushing off a reporter’s question about the prospect of China building a carrier, as he easily could, Huang says: “Aircraft carriers are a symbol of a country’s overall national strength and the competitiveness of its naval force. China has a large sea territory. It is the sacred responsibility of the armed forces to defend our sea territory and to uphold our maritime sovereignty and rights and interests.”

As to specific plans, Huang goes only as far as saying the country will research and consider the issue, but he couldn’t be expected to say more, since policy announcements are carefully scripted.

His comments came only a few weeks after what had previously been the most forthright official statement of Chinese carrier ambitions. Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the ministry’s foreign affairs office, told the Financial Times of London in November: “The navy of any great power . . . has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers. The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with [it].”

“Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike another country, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach.”

And that will probably be true, at least in the early days of Chinese carrier aviation, says Andrew Yang, a leading analyst of the Chinese military.

Yang, director-general of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, points out that aircraft carriers would not be wise investments in preparing to invade Taiwan. “The Taiwan Strait is too narrow,” he says. “It is not a place for a carrier, and China has land-based aircraft and missiles in range of Taiwan.”

Taiwan itself disagrees. Its defense ministry says China does plan to build carriers and that the island’s security would be seriously imperiled if Beijing could deploy even one such ship nearby in the event of war.

Still, the more likely motivation for a Chinese carrier program is the “large sea territory” that Col. Huang pointed to—a sea territory that is larger in China’s estimation than it is in the opinion of its neighbors. Eight countries have competing claims for South China Sea islands and their surrounding waters. China’s claim is by far the largest, and it rejects international arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, although it does seek peaceful dealings over the dispute.

From a naval point of view, a key problem in enforcing the claim is the distance of the territory from Chinese air bases and its closeness to those of the countries with competing claims—hence the justification for aircraft carriers.

To outsiders, a carrier program may seem like a costly measure to back Beijing’s position in the dispute. But China is even more obsessed with territorial claims than most countries are, because of its 19th century humiliations by Western powers and because of intense nationalism that the Communist Party promotes to solidify its own support.

Aircraft carriers operating within the South China Sea would also help deal with one of its economy’s most serious military vulnerabilities: its reliance on imported resources, especially oil, that pass through three straits between the South China Sea and the northeastern Indian Ocean.

Yang argues that the usefulness of carriers in the South China Sea is enough to explain China’s interest in building them. It isn’t necessary to attribute grand visions of oceanic deployments to a navy that has little experience in operating far from its home waters in any kind of surface ship, let alone aircraft carriers, which it doesn’t yet know how to operate at all.

Admittedly, a carrier force could be established with modest ambitions but later operated more widely.

Yang says the Chinese navy has long had pro- and anti-carrier factions. The proponents have now finally won, he says, although that does not mean construction of a carrier has actually begun.

Among other recent evidence for the victory of the carrier advocates, the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti cites Russian industry sources saying that China has bought prototypes of Sukhoi’s carrier-based fighter, the Su-33, from Ukraine and has sought 12 production units from Russia.

The Russians fear that the Chinese just want to copy the aircraft, as they have done with another member of the Su-27 family, but it is also likely that China really only needs a handful of carrier-capable fighters as it begins the notoriously difficult task of learning to operate fixed-wing aircraft at sea.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Chinese military officials in 2007. “We’ve been at this for decades and decades. I have a little bit of experience flying on and off carriers and employing carrier battle tactics. It’s complex, it’s complicated, it’s an intensely demanding regime and it’s a dangerous regime and it’s a very expensive undertaking.”

Recounting the conversation, Keating says he added: “Your development of aircraft carriers, done in a certain way, could be seen as a threat by some. I don’t regard it as a threat today. We are going to watch very carefully to make sure that it doesn’t become a threat.”

Construction of ships for a carrier battle group—either supporting ships or the carrier itself—has begun in Shanghai, according to an unnamed military source quoted by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. That source said the ship would carry no more than 60 aircraft. The defense ministry, unusually, has publicly rejected the report, however.

In fact, China already has an aircraft carrier, or at least the structure of one. It bought the incomplete former Soviet carrier Varyag from Ukraine in 1998, ostensibly to turn it into an amusement attraction and casino. The ship, a sister of the Russian carrier Kuznetsov, is now at a dockyard at the naval port Dalian, spruced up with a coat of standard Chinese naval gray paint and without a Ferris wheel or blackjack table in sight.

Varyag’s presence at the dockyard proves the ship is getting official attention, and the paint and a few other signs show that it’s had some work. But the deck does not seem to be as cluttered with materials, tools and containers as would be expected if a big project were in hand to turn the shell into a 65,000-ton operational warship.

China’s plans for Varyag can only be speculated on. At a minimum, the ship has been scrutinized for design details that China would need to copy when building its own carriers, perhaps reproductions of Varyag.

Indeed, Varyag is the fourth foreign ship that the Chinese have been able to examine for aviation features. Two units from the Soviet Union’s first class of ships designed for fixed-wing combat aircraft, the cruiser-carriers Kiev and Minsk, really did become amusement attractions in China after retirement. Perhaps more useful than their highly compromised design was that of the former Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne, whose plans were drawn up in Britain in World War II with the benefit of huge operational experience. The ship was sent to China for scrap in the 1980s.

It is possible that Varyag could be made mobile and seaworthy on the cheap to act as a training carrier, a practice platform until the first operational unit is built. Alternatively, it might be moored as a stationary flight deck, or even towed. Given enough time and money, the ship could be completed as an operational carrier. And, conceivably, the great hull could successively play all of those roles. For the moment, Beijing isn’t saying.