Obsolete Carrier, the herald of an arms race

During the month of August, both the foreign and CPC media have made much of the progress on the refitting of China’s first aircraft carrier. Previously bought from Ukraine, the CPC media have praised its recent maiden voyage as a coming of age for the PLA Navy, while they attempt to placate news reports discussing the possible aggressive motives behind its inception. Foreign media have taken interest in the case particularly after the previously named “Varyag” took off for its maiden voyage on the 10th, with many discussing the regional/political ramifications of its deployment considering recent clashes in the disputed South China Sea. This conflict seems set to intensify with many journalists stating that; despite the ship being outdated and slated for training and research purposes only, the CPC currently has three more, modern carriers under construction. The prospect of an arms race in the South China Sea seems to be resulting consensus by the many who see China attempting to throw its weight around in the South while keeping the US Navy on the back foor in the East through its modern nuclear attack submarines and “carrier killer” missile programmes.

An article by Guo Jlanyue in People’s Daily via the Chinese Military Media on the 12th of August discusses questions and apprehensions about the new interest in carriers on the mainland in a frank, if not conciliatory way. Guo states that, when it comes to the three new ships plus “Varyag” that China has currently at dock that the “deterrent of the carrier is usually larger than its practical effectiveness”. He goes on to imply that the PLC is banking on the deterrent of its naval strength to “play a significant role in protecting both the high seas and coastal waters”, simply read: it plans to intimidate its neighbors rather than fight. Blatantly citing the conflict in the South China Sea, Guo then goes on to backtrack with the statement “If we do not have the courage or will to use” (carriers) “to solve territorial disputes, why would we have built it?”

Currently the CPC sees large swathes of the South China Sea as its own inalienable territory, putting it into conflict with at least half a dozen nations, this is all despite there being conflicting historical possession of the islands in the sea and the fact that some of China’s ‘claimed’ maritime areas come inside the mandated territorial waters of its neighbours. As such the argument that a Chinese carrier fleet would seek to change the balance of power in the South China Sea, as propagated by some in the foreign press, seems more than likely. Again Guo backs this summation in claiming the Sea for China; he calls China’s maritime territory “vast” and assures China’s determination to secure “territorial integrity or its capacity to fight any country with ill maritime practices”.

Another article from Xinhua on August 11th, citing a Russian military “expert”, argues that the single Chinese carrier in operation will not prove a threat to the balance of power in the region. The unnamed source goes on to note the imbalance of naval power strongly favors the West and considering the ship is old and obsolete, casts the sole “Varyag” as nothing more than a source of national pride for China. No mention is made of the three CPC carriers currently under construction however and the article makes the implication that only the US Navy would be coming into conflict with the new CPC ships when in all likelihood it would be significantly weaker nations like Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei that would have to contest them.

A second Xinhua article released the same day carried reports from Western sources confirming that the new carriers could, both in the interim and long term, increase tensions notably in the South China Sea and also with the US and Japan. Through Xinhua, Cao Weidong from the PLA Navy Research Institute noted that the Carriers were a defensive and “necessary tool for the country to safeguard territorial waters and maritime transport routes”, despite the fact that Aircraft Carriers are universally recognised as tools of ‘force projection’ rather than of defence. The Navy Research Institute’s comments regarding ‘China’s territorial waters’ are also duplicitous however; as according to past statements by the PRC this area of ‘territorial water’ also means large, contested areas of the South China Sea; as such China seems to be openly making callously deceptive statements. The carriers will be used only to ‘defend’ PRC territory; in some cases “territory” that China, but not necessarily the rest of the world, sees as legitimately theirs.

The PRC’s ambiguous statements on its carrier programs have done nothing to allay international worries, with both the US and Japan openly asking China to explain why it needs them. Meanwhile, Taiwan in response, has touted the development of new, powerful and longer range “carrier killing” missiles in it’s media. Regardless, the obvious fact remains that for the time being the PRC will not have the technology, equipment or know-how to bring any carrier based capabilities to bear in the South China Sea, but the message its carrier program has sent is still a destabilising influence on its neighbours and possibly cause for an enlarged East Asian arms race.

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