John Garnaut in Beijing
December 24, 2008
CHINESE military officials hinted yesterday they were inching closer to developing the country's first operational aircraft carrier, which would greatly enhance the capacity to project military power beyond the immediate region.
A spokesman for the Defence Ministry, Senior Colonel Huang Xueping, said China would "earnestly research and consider" developing an aircraft carrier to protect its vast sea territories. "Aircraft carriers are a symbol of a country's overall national strength as well as the competitiveness of the country's naval force."
The comments were made at a rare press conference to provide details on China's deployment of war ships to ward off pirates in the Gulf of Aden and around the coast of Somalia.
Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on the Chinese military at the Institute of Global Conflict and Co-operation at the University of California, said it was "becoming increasingly clear that a political decision has been made" to deploy an aircraft carrier.
"This is all part of a growing propaganda campaign, this inching forward process of preparing the world that an aircraft carrier can be expected in the next few years."
Mr Cheung said it would take years to upgrade a Ukrainian carrier now berthed at the port of Dalian, buy suitable Russian fighter planes, train pilots and otherwise assemble the hardware and logistical capacity to support an aircraft carrier.
It would take even longer if China were to build an aircraft from scratch, as some Chinese navy and industry leaders would prefer.
"As a great power, China needs [an] aircraft carrier sooner or later," said Shi Yinhong, Professor of International Relations at the People's University.
"Although the Government or army has never announced China will build [an] aircraft carrier, we are seeing a lot of indirect discussion from official and semi-official sources."
An aircraft carrier was necessary to defend the country's long coastline, prepare for future conflict and protect the energy supply, he said.
Some defence analysts say building an aircraft carrier is more a matter of national prestige than military necessity.
"An aircraft carrier is a neat symbol of power but not necessarily a sign of substance, because they are so easy to sink," said Professor Hugh White, of the Australian National University and the Lowy Institute.
"If I was an American I would be down on my knees and praying they would be dumb enough to build one."
China's Somalia deployment is shaping as a test of China's military capability and an opportunity to develop and project its forces without ruffling global or regional powers such as the US and India.
"It is a very neat piece of strategic diplomacy by the Chinese," Professor White said.
Two destroyers, a supply ship, two helicopters and special forces will depart on Boxing Day to join other international naval vessels in fending off pirates around the Somalian coast and in the Gulf of Aden.
And From WSJ:
* DECEMBER 23, 2008, 9:01 A.M. ET
China Mulls Acquiring Aircraft Carrier
By SHAI OSTER
BEIJING – Chinese officials said the country's decision to send warships to the Gulf of Aden to curb piracy – China's first such deployment in modern history – doesn't represent a shift in defense policy. But the military's top spokesman said the navy is seriously considering expanding its reach by acquiring an aircraft carrier.
While downplaying the strategic importance of China's move to send two destroyers and supply ship to Middle Eastern waters, however, the navy, which has been investing heavily in new ships and aircraft, said that it now has the capability to conduct complex operations far from its coastal waters.
"We are sending our naval force as part of international cooperation, according to a specific situation," Capt. Ma Luping, director of the navy bureau of China's general staff, told reporters at a rare defense ministry news conference Tuesday. "It is not true that China will always send the navy whenever there is the loss of Chinese personnel or Chinese property."
Speaking at the same press conference, defense ministry spokesman Col. Huang Xueping said China is "seriously considering" adding an aircraft carrier to its fleet. "The air craft carrier is a symbol of a country's overall national strength, as well as the competitiveness of the country's naval force," he said.
"China has vast oceans and it is the sovereign responsibility of China's armed forces to insure the country's maritime security and uphold the sovereignty of its costal waters as well as its maritime rights and interests," Col. Huang said, in one of the most direct public statements on the thinking behind China's naval policy.
China has stepped up spending on the country's navy and the rest of its armed forces in an effort to modernize and strengthen them. Much of the defense push has been driven by China's increasingly global commercial interests. China's economy depends on trade and imported oil and raw materials.
China says its ships in the Gulf of Aden will operate under United Nations rules of engagement, including a U.N. policy on when to engage pirates. The ships' mission also includes protecting deliveries of humanitarian aid to Somalia. China will cooperate with other navies and commercial ships operating in the area, Mr. Ma said.
Underscoring the novelty of such a mission for China, the navy says it is still negotiating over where its ships will be able to dock for re-supply.
China's navy doesn't patrol the Straits of Malacca – between peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra – through which a large portion of its oil passes and where piracy has been an issue in the past. Mr. Ma said piracy in Malacca is essentially under control while it has been quickly growing in the Gulf of Aden -- along a critical international shipping route -- with seven attacks on Chinese ships so far this year.
Since August, 15 countries have dispatched warships and planes to participate in antipiracy patrols in the Gulf and Indian Ocean waters of Somalia. But international forces have been stretched too thin to effectively curb the increasingly daring and sophisticated pirates.
Mr. Ma's comments on the possible acquisition of a carrier indicate renewed interest in an idea whose popularity has waxed and waned within Chinese defense circles for decades. In 1985, China bought a decommissioned carrier from Australia. After Chinese technicians studied the ship it was scrapped, but a replica of the flight deck was built for use in pilot training.
China has since acquired three former Soviet carriers. Two have been turned into floating military theme parks. The Pentagon says that the third -- which was unfinished when it was purchased -- has undergone work in China, but that it remains unclear what the Chinese navy intends to do with the vessel.
Carrier operations are extremely complex. Building the hull of the actual aircraft carrier itself is among the simplest steps. Learning to integrate air and surface operations, training air wings and developing the sophisticated radar and command-and-communications systems required for modern naval aviation could take many years. U.S. government and independent analysts say it could be 2015 or 2020 before China could be ready to deploy an operational carrier.
—Gordon Fairclough contributed to this article.