The significance of China’s second aircraft carrier


IT was strangely apt that this week, when China’s first home-built and as yet unnamed aircraft carrier left the Dalian Shipyard where it had been constructed over the last five years, it turned with the assistance of tugs and sailed off on its first sea trials straight into a thick fog.

Fortunately it was not heading off into the fog of war but into a thick mist of conjecture about Beijing’s strategic military plans. The all-Chinese carrier joins the Liaoning, formerly a Ukrainian vessel which was converted at the same Chinese shipyard and entered service with the Chinese navy in 2012.

Shortly after the Communists took power in China, Mao Zedong said the country needed a strong navy to protect itself from “imperialist aggression”. Since then various top naval commanders have insisted it only wanted aircraft carriers to expand its air defense perimeter and was not interested in being able to promote any global reach. Yet in recent decades Chinese naval vessels have been showing the flag in a series of port calls around the globe. Chinese warships have also been involved in international anti-pirate patrols off the coast of Somalia and the Chinese navy helped to evacuate foreigners from Aden in 2015 following the attempted overthrow Yemen’s government.

Whatever Beijing’s protests to the contrary, in terms of tonnage, China now possesses the world’s second largest navy after the United States. Its ability to defend its homeland should therefore probably not be questioned. Its desire and ability to use sea power to project Chinese influence further afield are what outside military analysts and planners, not least in the Pentagon, are trying to figure out.

In general, with the arguable exception of Tibet, as a matter of policy Beijing has publicly refused to interfere in the sovereign affairs of other countries. In Africa, its readiness to do business with any state, regardless of the reputation of the ruling regime, has brought rich commercial rewards, particularly in minerals and mining. This political ambivalence has enabled Beijing to keep a low profile, insisting it is not is business how other countries conduct their affairs. Of especial significance is China’s reliance on Iranian oil, which is believed to account for around ten percent of its energy needs. China has been investing to upgrade ayatollahs’ decrepit oil infrastructure. Tehran is not known to have sought to finesse its importance to Beijing by seeking less harsh treatment for China’s Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province.

Some Western analysts have concluded that the China lacks recent naval tradition and faces technology challenges such as mastering the replenishment warships at sea. History shows that such contemptuous analyses can be dangerously wrong. In 1939 Japanese naval power was similarly dismissed. Yet Japan’s formidable fleets were defeated largely because the Americans had cracked the Japanese naval codes, while the Japanese had not penetrated those used by the US Navy. The result was a series of catastrophic defeats for Japan because the Americans knew everything about the rival’s plans while the Japanese knew virtually nothing.

By the time China’s second aircraft carrier completes her sea trials, probably at the end of this year, it seems likely that work will already have begun on a third carrier. Whatever Beijing’s long-term naval strategy, the degree to which potential rivals on the high seas are now paying attention has surely increased significantly.