China’s Navy Prepares To Move Beyond Littorals
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) recently began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, the former Russian carrier Varyag. The trials are further evidence of China’s effort to create a blue-water force that expands its military reach beyond the littorals. The trials came as a surprise to many U.S. defense analysts who were skeptical of Chinese carrier advancements.
“Once again, the Chinese confound the naysayers,” said Dean Cheng, a China analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank.
The new carrier will improve the PLAN’s long-range power projection and replace the old force structure model of only relying on submarines and surface combatant vessels, said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director, Center for National Strategy Studies, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Even without a carrier, China has reached second place in naval strength, behind the U.S. China has 60 submarines, 25 destroyers and 45 frigates at its disposal. What China has lacked was the ability to break beyond the first island chain and project force beyond its littoral waterways.
The advent of a rising Chinese Navy has made the region nervous, particularly Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. China has laid claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
“Weaker Southeast Asian states would certainly worry more,” said Toshi Yoshihara of the U.S. Naval War College. “Should China seek to flex its carrier muscle in the South China Sea in the future, the regional coastal states may not have a credible counter.” However, some are calling China’s carrier an “iron coffin.” Chinese carriers would play to the strengths of traditional Asian sea powers like Japan and the U.S. “Japan strategists, for example, believe that Japan’s submarines would be more than a match against Chinese carriers,” Yoshihara said.
There have been concerns raised about a Taiwan scenario involving a Chinese carrier. China has roughly 400 fighters within striking distance across the Taiwan Strait, but has no capability to the east of the island. A Chinese aircraft carrier based on the nation’s east coast during a conflict could allow it to block U.S. Navy efforts to come to Taiwan’s defense.
However, Varyag can carry only 40 aircraft, which limits its offensive capability, said Roger Cliff, a China analyst at the Project 2049 Institute. Many of these aircraft would be flying combat air patrols to protect the carrier, leaving 20 aircraft that might produce 40 strike sorties a day.
“Not a big deal, considering that Taiwan would probably be facing 1,000 or more strike sorties from land-based air every day,” Cliff said. A Chinese aircraft carrier would be an inviting target for a U.S. Navy submarine. If anything, during a Taiwan scenario, the PLAN might “just keep it in port and out of theater for fear of it getting sunk,” Cliff said.
Vietnam is also acquiring six Kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia in response to the growing Chinese threat. “Vietnam’s sub force will present a credible deterrent to China’s carrier, especially if one of its Kilos penetrates the carrier’s defensive screen,” said Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“China’s carrier will be politically, but not militarily intimidating if it deploys to the South China Sea.” China will need at least three to four aircraft carriers before it might begin full-time operational carrier-based operations, and even then, the U.S. is still ahead of China with 11 aircraft carriers, Zhuang said.