Volume 21 Issue 6 June 2017

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that naval modernisation remains a pivotal dimension of a country’s defence tactics and security dynamics. Any steps to consolidate, reorganize and strengthen the navy enable countries to preserve their maritime interests and gain clout in foreign matters.

China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier represents a major leap forward in the communist nation’s effort to strengthen its naval capacity. The 50,000-tonne aircraft carrier will enhance China’s blue-water naval capabilities. By building an aircraft carrier on its own, China has shown its symbolic strength in the burgeoning regional tensions over North Korea and indirectly raised its stake in the disputes surrounding the South China Sea.
At this juncture, the main hull of the aircraft carrier has been completed and its power supply mechanisms have been installed. According to China’s defence ministry, the mooring tests and the debugging of the carrier’s electronic system have yet to be carried out.

However, the exact repercussions of China’s new initiative to empower its naval forces cannot be gauged until the aircraft carrier is formally commissioned after a series of sea trials are conducted and its full air complement arrives. Until then, it is more of a deterrence measure that will only rattle China’s opponents and compel them to act with caution.

A wave of suspicion and fear is likely to persist amid China’s claims and aspirations regarding the aircraft carrier. While the initiative is believed to be welcome proof of the technical sophistication of China’s defence industries, the communist nation’s perceived aim of using the carrier to bolster its maritime territorial claims and safeguard its crucial trade routes is likely to send ripples across the globe.

China plans to build at least two – and, in an ideal situation, around four–carriers. Various sections of the Chinese media have confirmed that one of these domestically built carriers – the Type 002 – is reportedly to be under construction at a shipyard on the outskirts of Shanghai. As per media reports, this carrier will be as large as the US Navy's nuclear-powered 100,000-tonne Nimitz class ships. These reports also suggest that the under-construction carrier will have flat flight decks and catapults to enable planes “to launch with more bombs and fuel aboard.” On the surface, the aircraft carrier appears to be a fiercely competitive venture that is likely to draw the ire of a major world power.

China’s burgeoning naval strength might also pull India out of its false sense of security and shatter its illusions of complete dominance over countries within the region. According to an article published in the Global Times, New Delhi is believed to be impatiently waiting for an opportunity to develop an aircraft carrier. Unfortunately, this aspiration appears to be somewhat premature as India is still in the nascent stages of industrialization and might encounter technical impediments. India firmly believes that its prosperity depends on its unstinted control of the Indian Ocean.

However, its dominance over the region has been hindered owing to a cluster of internal problems. Although India has operated an aircraft carrier since 1961, it has yet to develop the capabilities to build one through its domestic research base. This is a direct outcome of its startling inability to foster an indigenous culture of research and development. As a result, the Indian Navy’s dream to establish three aircraft carriers has remained just that – something that is marked on an unattainable wish-list.

Caught in the shackles of insecurity, India might be threatened by China’s domestically-produced carrier. These tensions are likely to be accentuated by the history of rivalries that loom large between both countries. Nevertheless, China is likely to benefit from India’s example. Analysts believe India is embroiled in a “carrier complex.” This is largely because it has conflated the purpose of possessing aircraft carriers. Instead of using it as a deterrent for conflict, India has repeatedly


insisted on viewing it as a means of mortal combat. It has simultaneously done little to create an environment where its indigenous capabilities to employ innovative research strategies can be enhanced. China, on the other hand, was only able to domestically produce an aircraft carrier because it made consistent efforts to revamp its research and development infrastructure.

Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean are not the only cause of concern.
Japan and Taiwan also view Chinese carriers as a potential threat. These countries are also likely to put forward an effective response. Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia, is of the view that they will build new submarines and anti-ship missiles. He firmly believes China's “expansionist behaviour in the South China Sea and its aggressive efforts to undermine the security of Taiwan and Japan” have culminated in a trust deficit surrounding Beijing.
Easton’s concerns are not entirely ill-founded. China believes Taiwan is part of its own territory and is also willing to use brute force to claim control of it. When China sailed the Liaoning through the Taiwan Straits earlier this year, it proved its resolve to carry out this threat.

The new carrier will carry 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, based on the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, along with 12 helicopters for anti-submarine warfare and airborne early warning and rescue operations. It is believed to be part of the Chinese Navy’s ambitious expansionist plan. It is projected the force will have between 265 and 273 warships, submarines and logistics vessels by 2020.

However, the manner in which this plan will be implemented remains shrouded in mystery as China has offered limited insights on how these aircraft carriers will be used. In the absence of vital information, the aircraft carrier should simply be construed as a cosmetic measure rather than an aggressive defence strategy.
If taken at face value, it is simply an attempt to build China’s naval capacity as a means of strategic prudence. Whether China utilizes these capabilities to pose a direct military threat to another country is purely a matter of its own prerogative. At this stage, it is difficult to predict anything with certainty. These developments should therefore be viewed in light of China’s persistent efforts to reorganize and re-equip the navy. Naval forces often prioritize the need to develop mechanisms to tackle geopolitical uncertainties and conflicts even though they are not inclined to using them. It is a professional tactic that prepares them for any eventuality and motivates them to adopt preventative measures. This could also drive down the possibility of war and conflict.

In addition, the new carrier reflects China’s desire to stay abreast of technological developments and trends. There is a fine line between acting on the basis of a perceived threat of an attack and taking steps to give the illusion of progress. If a country chooses to purchase state-of-the-art war equipment, it could, in turn, encourage its neighbours to contemplate making an equivalent purchase. The general danger of falling behind might prompt countries like India, Japan and Taiwan to act accordingly. But this hypothesis can only hold water if we assume that China has solely decided to introduce the aircraft carrier to directly threaten these countries.

The new carrier may also serve as a concrete attempt to strengthen China’s national prestige and curb any efforts to tamper with its national sovereignty. A modern navy will provide a beacon of hope for the country and elevate its status within the international community.

The implications of China’s new aircraft carrier can only be gauged once the communist country offers a clear and coherent narrative to explain its intentions for the project. Until this explanation is provided, the initiative should be seen as part of ongoing strategies to enhance China’s naval capabilities. If we continue to fan speculations about how the carrier has the potential to upend regional dynamics, it will only create insecurity and a needless wave of suspicion.

The writer is a poet and author. He is a law graduate of SOAS.

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