China’s aircraft carrier: the Death Star of the Spratlys

China Aircraft carrier

China‘s newaircraft carrier is again in the news, with sea trials apparently due nextweek, perhaps to coincide with the 90th anniversary of China‘scommunist party.  There are any number ofskeptics about the ship. A recent post by the Lexington Institute suggests thecarrier is an immense mistake. A “highly vulnerable extravagance” is how theauthor puts it. 

In the context of ‘The Big One’ with the US (or Japan,Korea, and perhaps Taiwan) I’d haveto agree. The Shi Lang (if the ship is named thus) and her escorts would be  magnets for enemy aircraft and submarines. Hersinking would entail great loss of life and be catastrophic for morale, muchlike the loss of the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano in the 1982 FalklandsWar, or even the sinking of Britain’s Prince of Wales and Repulse in World WarII.

But short of a full scale war with another top power the ShiLang and the more capable flattops that will follow make immeasurably goodsense. If recent Chinese belligerence is any indication, the hotspot of thenext few decades will be the South China Sea in general and the Spratly Islands in particular. Malaysia, Indonesia,Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei,and Chinaall lay claims in the Spratlys.

While no Nimitz, the Shi Lang is well suited to a situationin which China felt sheneeded a rapid show of force in the South China Sea.Aside from Thailand‘s tiny HTMSChakri NaruebetThailandmakes no claims in the Spratlys – no Southeast Asian nation deploys anythingremotely like the naval air capability proposed by the Shi Lang and futureChinese carriers, which are likely to carry more fighters and dedicatedairborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft.

In the unlikely event that flexing muscles is not enough toterrify a Southeast Asian rival, Chinese carriers in the South China Sea willoperate under the protective umbrella of aircraft operated from bases on themainland and Hainan Island. It also is worthremembering that countries with long littorals such as Vietnam, the Philippines,Indonesia, and Malaysia are uniquely vulnerable to incursionsby small packets of carrier-based fighters, as demonstrated by the US navy duringthe Vietnam War.

Perhaps, decades from now, Chinawill 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 plentycapable of bullying smaller neighbours around the South China Sea. China‘scarrier programme is not about besting the US,but about guaranteeing aerial supremacy over a region Beijing views asa vital national interest. 

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4 Responses to China’s aircraft carrier: the Death Star of the Spratlys

  1. Dan 29 June, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    In terms of a USN v PLAN war in the Pacific with or without the support of Japan and South Korea, then a single PLAN CV makes a negligible difference and the only reason it is not sunk is because US is trying not to escalate whatever is going on.

    However if the measure of any naval construction is can you beat the USN with 11 CVN and another 10+ USMC flattops then every one else should simply scap their navies and go have a few fishery protection and immigration coastguard.

    Reality is China like UK, France, etc use their navies for things other than going to war with the US!

    South China Sea is one area but, anti Piracy, off Somalia.
    China was involved in mass evacuation of it’s citizens from Libya and as it’s investments pile up around the world those sort of operations are going to happen again.

    African country decides to jail Chinese trawlers or chose infrastructure workers orchinese container ship either as part of finical dispute or post a change of government in the home country.

    Lebanon or another country get to the position of 1980s Lebanon will see hostage taking and these days that will include Chinese.

    UN operation which includes Chinese PLA goes bad and there are deaths or casualties, a PLAN CV off the coast of Sierra Leone or Ivory Coast is believable, intervention in Haiti would have the US having kittens even if it was only an operation to free some Chinese hostages from an armed gang!

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