Chinese Carrier Comments Spur Speculation on Plans
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — China is not expected to have an aircraft carrier until at least 2025, one Taiwan military official said, adding the self-governing island’s perspective on a recent spate of media reports about the mainland’s naval aviation plans.
Renewed speculation about China’s carrier progress was touched off by a Nov. 16 interview with Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the foreign affairs office of China’s Ministry of National Defense.
“The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier,” Qian told the London-based Financial Times.
“Even if one day we have an aircraft carrier, unlike other countries, we will not use it to pursue global deployment or global reach.”
The comments sparked media speculation that China is about to launch a major carrier program, which received some disbelief among China watchers.
“I’ve read articles/reports dating back to the 1970s about China’s nearterm acquisition of an aircraft carrier [CV],” said Bud Cole, a China military specialist at the National War College in Washington. “The current articles about Chinese CV acquisition do not appear to me to be any more authoritative than previous reports — although, obviously in my opinion, one of these times the reports will prove to be accurate.”
Still, Cole said, Beijing may have finally approved a program to acquire a carrier, a conclusion based on unofficial statements by senior PLA officers, recently reported discussions between Chinese and Russian officials about Su-33 acquisition, and the presence of the exRussian carrier, Varyag, in a Chinese navy drydock, where it could be equipped with the engines necessary to make it operational.
“A wise U.S. naval planner would anticipate his force having to face a Chinese aircraft carrier operating at sea within the next 10 years,” he said.
The Taiwan defense official said the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is struggling to refurbish the Ukrainian-built Varyag as a training platform, with completion not expected until 2015.
The official said Taiwan expects China to complete its first domestic aircraft carrier around 2025.
“PLAN will build one, possibly two carriers, at the Jiang-nan Shipyard, Zhang-xing Island near Shanghai,” he said.
Cole said there is little doubt the first “air-capable ship” China builds will most likely be about 40,000 tons, roughly the size of a U.S. LHD/LHA helicopter carrier.
“That would be a very capable ship, embarking helos and a VSTOL/VTOL aircraft,” he said.
The Taiwan official noted that China would have to also build the warships that escort an aircraft carrier. “The Chinese do not have enough ships to form a carrier strike group by 2015,” he said.
According to the 2008 edition of the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military modernization, Beijing “has an active aircraft carrier research and design program” that could lead to the start of “construction of an indigenous platform by the end of this decade.”
“However, as China’s current ability to project and sustain power at a distance remains limited, the PLA, at least for the near and midterms, will face an ambition-capability gap. Currently, it is neither capable of using military power to secure its foreign energy investments nor of defending critical sea lanes against disruption,” the report said.
Speculation continues about what type of aircraft would fly from the carrier; possible candidates include the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 and a modified version of the Chinesebuilt Chengdu J-10 fighter.
“Moreover, Russian press has reported Chinese interest in acquiring Russian Su-33 carrier-borne fighters. In October 2006, a Russian press report suggested early-stage negotiations were under way for China to purchase up to 50 such aircraft at a cost of $2.5 billion,” the Pentagon report said.
There were additional media reports in October that China might buy 14 Su-33s for training purposes.
The 70,000-ton Varyag was originally destined for the Soviet Navy, but with the breakup of the Soviet Union, construction stopped on the carrier in 1992. In 1998, a Macau-based company purchased the vessel for $20 million. The ship arrived at Dalian Shipyard in China in 2002, where it has been painted and appears to be undergoing refurbishment.
There have unconfirmed reports the vessel will be renamed the Shi Lang with the pennant number 83. Shi Lang was a Ming-Qing dynasty admiral who led the successful 1683 invasion of Taiwan with 300 warships and 20,000 troops.
The Varyag is just one of four decommissioned aircraft carriers collected from around the world.