By Ivan Eland
The world’s media is touting the “coming out” party for China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The carrier and its entourage of escorting destroyers and frigates made a splash when they left the first island chain behind and sallied forth into the open Pacific Ocean past Taiwan and Okinawa. The ship and its battle group are symbolically headed to the South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with several nations.
An editorial in the Chinese government-run Global Times, which accompanied the battle group’s voyage, claimed that soon Chinese carriers would be lurking off the U.S. West Coast in the Eastern Pacific, thus making the United States think twice about its carriers’ current prowling in the Western Pacific near China. China has one other carrier under construction and plans to have four carriers a decade or so from now.
China is undoubtedly a rising Asian power, with double-digit economic growth, and may someday have a credible aircraft carrier force. The Liaoning is not that force; in fact, it’s a joke. China bought the outdated Soviet-designed ship, with its obsolete ski jump flight deck, from Ukraine in the late 1990s, refitted it, and relaunched it as a training carrier in 2012. Rather than bringing substantial combat power to bear, as the ten modern U.S. carrier battle groups do, the Liaoning is merely a symbol of China’s future aspiration to being an Asian/Pacific power.
Perfecting carrier operations takes many decades of naval institutional memory and massive amounts of money, both of which the U.S. Navy has had and the Chinese Navy has not. A nation needs much more than new ships and aircraft—it needs institutional know-how on developing highly trained personnel, and specialized logistics capability. The ships and aircraft must be properly crewed, operated, resupplied, maintained, and overhauled.
Carriers are at their best when they are showing the flag (what the Liaoning is doing), because when a war starts, land-based aircraft have greater range and can carry larger weapons loads. In addition, some naval analysts believe that carriers are very vulnerable to attack from such aircraft, land- and sea-based cruise missiles, torpedoes from submarines, and maybe even naval mines. Thus, if they are correct—which seems likely—it may not behoove the rising China to so closely imitate the United Sates, the established naval superpower.
Thus, although the hoopla about China’s sending its aircraft carrier into the Pacific has been overdone, the United States should note the insecurity that China has experienced about the operation of U.S. carrier battle groups in the Western Pacific near its shores. The United States has no viable security interest in engaging in such intimidation and containment of China—other than to protect wealthy allied nations, under outdated alliances, that should be doing much more to defend themselves.
In the late 1800s, when America was the rising power and the British Empire was the established one, the two nations mitigated their then-rivalry—allowing the United States to rise peacefully—mainly because a large ocean moat existed between them, making them less nervous about each other as a security threat. Today, a larger ocean separates China and America. Therefore, the new American president should not allow the U.S. military-industrial-congressional-media complex to exaggerate the threat from China and should reduce U.S. carrier operations in the Western Pacific so that China can begin to have a sphere of influence in nearby waters.
This article was published at Huffington Post and is reprinted with permission.