Reviewing the pile of newspapers which accrued over the holiday period, perhaps the dominant theme in coverage of China was of its looming military capacity.
Three news items in particular contributed to this sense. First, reports emerged that China has been moving more rapidly that previously imagined towards an aircraft carrier capability. Second, Admiral Robert Willard, the current head of the US Pacific Command, stated that the latest version of the Dong Feng (East Wind) 21-D anti-ship ballistic missile had reached “initial operational capability”, making it clear that the US Navy takes China’s “carrier-killer” seriously. Finally, China put its J20 Strike Fighter, the first domestically produced stealth fighter, through preliminary and public tests.
Some commentators pointed to the timing of these matters, coming as they do shortly before a visit by Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defence, in January. As such, the revelations were seen as part of a policy of deterrence being pursued by Beijing, matching its newly assertive strategy taken in other aspects of international affairs, such as the sea border with Japan. These statements ring true, but need be set in deeper context.
Since 1949, China’s pre-eminent security concerns have included protection against foreign aggressors (the US prior to 1972, the Soviet Union from the mid 1960s), asserting itself regionally (against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979), and of course tackling the Taiwan issue. Since 1989, though, its main concerns have been internal stability, achieved by pursuing a cautious foreign policy, and once again the question of Taiwan. In this context, Chinese planners appeared to focus first on how to prevent Taiwan achieving formal independence; second, on how to take Taiwan; and third, on how to prevent a US intervention on behalf of the Republic of China in the event of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invasion.
Accordingly, China sought to deter Taiwanese independence by building up missile capabilities, to develop amphibious capabilities to capture the island, and to pursue a sea denial strategy through the use of submarines, air power and artillery aimed at keeping US aircraft carrier groups at bay. The Dong Feng 21-D missile and the stealth fighter fit neatly into this strategy. Both weapons would keep US carrier groups at arms-length by making intervention too costly in both blood and treasure for Washington. Indeed, if the claims set against the carrier-killer are true – that a single one of the missiles could sink a carrier – then it would amount to a game changer.
Of late, though, China has arguably broadened its aims to include pushing the US further out of the western Pacific, and in recent years to include the protection of its interests in far flung destinations (such as the seas off Somalia). And it is in this context that the carrier issue appears to sit.
These latest revelations about carrier plans have come after years of debate in the policy community about whether China would develop such capacity, a discussion stoked by the purchase of the Ukrainian decommissioned carrier, the Varyag (Viking), in 1998. It now seems clear that China will move in this direction. Some reports state that the Varyag will be refitted as early as next year (although this may be exaggerated), with the old carrier acting as a training platform for pilots alongside some landside short runways cited by analysts. Reports also stated that China will develop its own carriers, with a target operational date of about 2020.
This development is impressive; few countries can afford carriers. However, China is unlikely to be able to challenge US carrier groups for some time, since carriers are natural targets and so require a host of other support vessels (mine-sweepers, submarine hunters and so on) to ensure their security. This means they are both expensive to run and to some degree constrained in their operations. Carrier operations also take time to master. In addition, given the growing speed and capability of missiles and other over-the-horizon threats like the Dong Feng 21-D, it is not clear that carriers will retain their importance in naval warfare. It is tempting to ask if China might be replicating Japan’s development of the world’s biggest battleship Yamato (commissioned in 1941), a behemoth which proved an albatross in a new era of carrier-based warfare.
Putting that thought aside, though: while China’s carriers would probably fare badly in a direct confrontation with the US, they may still challenge it (and other states) in less tangible ways. Carriers could provide the naval force necessary to project power to protect key commercial or strategic interests. Chinese interests are now spread so widely they include Spanish and Greek government debt, Angolan oil, copper mines in Zambia, and soya farms in Brazil. Some may be strategic in nature and some not, but they are growing. So it is tempting to speculate whether at some point in the future we might find Chinese carriers patrolling the waters off a small African country, newly supportive of US interests, which has just expropriated all Chinese investments in its energy sector.
China’s imperial tradition – as a land based power, focused on regional ascendancy as expressed in the delivery of tribute to it by its neighbours– differs markedly from the maritime imperial tradition forged by the European empires of the Dutch and the British, and now borne by the US in a less formal fashion. This fact, and the claim that China has no imperial ambitions, is part of the familiar repertoire of Chinese diplomats. However, the world we now know was forged by a maritime imperial system, and China’s growing wealth and pre-eminence in this era of globalisation means its widespread interests are coming to resemble those of Britain in the nineteenth century or of the US more recently. It is not inconceivable, then, that China will act in some instances as did those other powers, in a pattern predicted by leftist writers such as JA Hobson and Lenin in the first years of the twentieth century.
One of the key debates in the historiography of the British Empire asks whether trade followed the flag, or vice versa. The debate remains unsettled, but what it highlights is that naval power projected overseas to protect national interests was one of the key components of British ascendancy. China’s carrier development plans, then, are intriguing, given the growing size and variety of its overseas interests.