China's first aircraft carrier, named, according to reports, the Shi Yang after the Chinese Admiral who first conquered Taiwan, will sail soon on its first cruise. According to a Chinese Government spokesman, it will be used for "scientific research, experiment and training."
Why does Beijing want seagoing Naval airpower ? Why does China want an aircraft carrier? China certainly does not need a carrier if its only goal is forcibly to occupy Taiwan.
It appears that, not surprisingly, the main reason Beijing wants a carrier is to project power in and around the South China Sea. China's claims to the area are based on its assertion that a number of islets and reefs are China's own sovereign territory, and that, under international maritime law, the seas and sea beds around them belong to China. China's claim to this Exclusive Economic Zone extends for more than a thousand miles south of Hainan Island almost to the coasts of Brunei and Malaysia. Since there were reports of large deposits of oil and gas in these areas, China and the other states involved, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, are taking this territorial dispute extremely seriously .
To China, it seems as if the use of carriers by mid-sized countries that is of the most interest. They see how France, with a single medium sized, nuclear-powered carrier has been able to project its own power against the Gaddafi regime in Libya; they have also noted how Britain's lack of sea-based air-power has limited the UK's ability to influence events on the ground in North Africa or elsewhere.
China's Naval leaders also seem to remember how in 1982 Britain was able to send a task force eight thousand miles from the UK, into the South Atlantic to recapture the Falkland islands in the teeth of a land-based air force whose planes outnumbered by a considerable margin the twenty or so jet fighters the British were able to deploy on their two small carriers. The British were able to land their ground troops in face of fierce Argentine air force attacks because they had air cover from their carriers.
China also seems to remember the part played by India's single aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, during the Bangladesh War on independence in 1971. The Indian ship and its aircraft not only blockaded the coast of what was then called "East Pakistan;" it also launched air strikes against air bases that destroyed the ability of the Pakistani air force to intervene in the fighting.
Pakistan's inability to use its Navy to support its Army or Air Force was a major factor in its defeat in 1971, and in the emergence of the new nation of Bangladesh. Since then, India has made major investments in its naval aviation when, for example, India's leaders in New Delhi decided to buy a rebuilt Soviet-era aircraft carrier from Russia. In the longer term the Indian Navy is building a carrier of its own design in a shipyard in Mumbai.
In early June 2011 there was an incident, near the Spratly Islands, between a Vietnamese chartered oil-and-gas exploration ship and a Chinese fishing vessel. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman complained that Vietnam was "..conducting unlawful oil and gas surveys around the Wanan Bank of the Spratly archipelago." In Vietnam, there was a public demonstration outside the Chinese embassy.
In the absence of some sort of resolution of these claims to the resources of the South China Sea, it is expected that more incidents of this kind will occur.
Carriers always sail as the centerpiece of what the US Navy calls a Carrier Battle Group; these usually include at least three or four destroyers and cruisers, a supply ship and a nuclear-powered attack submarine. Other navies may not support their carriers quite so lavishly, but they never allow their carriers to sail unescorted.
Any navy needs a good deal of institutional knowledge to effectively use an aircraft carrier and its support fleet. This is something that can only be developed with decades of hard training and experience. China's decision to take the time and spend the money needed to win for themselves the benefits of seagoing airpower has implications for the East Asian region and for its relations the US.
In World War Two aircraft carriers were above all instruments of "Sea Control": they sank enemy warships and "ruled the waves". Since then, that role has been largely usurped by nuclear-powered attack submarines and by long-range aircraft firing cruise missiles. Today, aircraft carriers are used for what Naval experts call "Power Projection": they attack targets on land and project sea power against coastal areas; or even, as with the US Navy send warplanes over Afghanistan, hundreds of miles inland.
In 2011 the Obama administration has used carrier aviation in Afghanistan, Libya and during the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. The US Navy's eleven large carriers are unique instruments of national power. No other nation comes close to having this kind of force. This fact that the US has these ships is one of the things that makes America a true global "hyperpower," as a former French Foreign Minister once called it.
Once China has an operational aircraft carrier, it will have by far the "biggest stick" in the region. With a carrier, China will be able to put intense military pressure on all the states around the South China Sea; not just Vietnam and the Philippines, but Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, as well.
For the Taiwan operation; amphibious warfare ships, small missile-carrying ships and submarines, and a variety of escort ships to defend the other ships would be all the navy needed. Of course, such an invasion would require air superiority and an invasion force of several divisions of ground troops, but without local naval superiority, this attack across the Taiwan Strait, is simply, as the British say "not on." An amphibious assault on Taiwan does not require an aircraft carrier; neither did the Allied Normandy invasion of June 6th, 1944. In both events, the distance from the invasion ports to the landing beaches is about 100 miles; land-based aviation would be more than enough for China to gain the required air superiority,
If, in the future, China sends its carrier -- or carriers -- onto the oceans beyond the South China Sea, this will be proof that it is indeed seeking to become a global power.
For the moment, however, the US and its allies can afford to wait and watch. It may be soon that China begins to build effective carriers that could match those of the US Navy. It is an event for which we should start preparing -- now.