aircraft carrier is again in the news, with sea trials apparently due next
week, perhaps to coincide with the 90th anniversary of China's
communist party. There are any number of
skeptics about the ship. A recent post by the Lexington Institute suggests the
carrier is an immense mistake. A "highly vulnerable extravagance" is how the
author puts it.
In the context of 'The Big One' with the US (or Japan,
Korea, and perhaps Taiwan) I'd have
to agree. The Shi Lang (if the ship is named thus) and her escorts would be magnets for enemy aircraft and submarines. Her
sinking would entail great loss of life and be catastrophic for morale, much
like the loss of the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano in the 1982 Falklands
War, or even the sinking of Britain's Prince of Wales and Repulse in World War
But short of a full scale war with another top power the Shi
Lang and the more capable flattops that will follow make immeasurably good
sense. If recent Chinese belligerence is any indication, the hotspot of the
next few decades will be the South China Sea in general and the Spratly Islands in particular. Malaysia, Indonesia,
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei,
all lay claims in the Spratlys.
While no Nimitz, the Shi Lang is well suited to a situation
in which China felt she
needed a rapid show of force in the South China Sea.
Aside from Thailand's tiny HTMS
Chakri Naruebet - Thailand
makes no claims in the Spratlys - no Southeast Asian nation deploys anything
remotely like the naval air capability proposed by the Shi Lang and future
Chinese carriers, which are likely to carry more fighters and dedicated
airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft.
In the unlikely event that flexing muscles is not enough to
terrify a Southeast Asian rival, Chinese carriers in the South China Sea will
operate under the protective umbrella of aircraft operated from bases on the
mainland and Hainan
Island. It also is worth
remembering that countries with long littorals such as Vietnam, the Philippines,
Indonesia, and Malaysia are uniquely vulnerable to incursions
by small packets of carrier-based fighters, as demonstrated by the US navy during
the Vietnam War.
Perhaps, decades from now, China
will indeed have a carrier fleet to challenge the US in the world's great oceans -
assuming that carriers retain their importance far into the 21st century. Until that time her big ships will be plenty
capable of bullying smaller neighbours around the South
China Sea. China's
carrier programme is not about besting the US,
but about guaranteeing aerial supremacy over a region Beijing views as
a vital national interest.
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