China's first domestically built aircraft carrier as seen at the Dalian Shipyard. China already has one carrier, but Beijing believes the rising superpower must have more to safeguard not only its sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests but also the region’s, a view not shared by its neighbors.Photo: AFP / Wang Xizeng

China’s first home-built aircraft carrier has recently undergone sea trials and is expected to enter service as early as next year. The Asian power already has one carrier in active service, the Liaoning, a refurbished Cold War-era vessel bought from Ukraine and commissioned in 2012.

In an editorial on May 13 — the day the as-yet-unnamed 50,000-ton Type 001A vessel and the country’s first “combat” aircraft carrier headed out for its first sea trial — the Global Times said “China is gradually stepping into an era of dual aircraft carriers” and its “second aircraft carrier highlights the country’s major progress.”

But, the paper, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, stated that “as a major power, China should have multiple aircraft carriers.”

The view that the rising superpower needs to build more aircraft carriers — at least six such vessels, with at least four of them being nuclear-powered — in the future is widely maintained by other Chinese state media outlets and analysts.

The argument for aircraft carriers

For them, their country must develop more aircraft carriers because such a build-up is essential for safeguarding not only its sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests but also the region’s — and even the world’s — stability and peace.

For instance, a commentary in the People’s Daily in December last year said: “The prime reason for China to develop aircraft carriers is to safeguard national security, and regional and world peace.” A Chinese expert told CGTN (China Global Television Network) on May 15 that “the main purpose of building the vessels is regional peace.” In the same day, a senior researcher at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Military Studies Research Institute told the China Daily, another prominent state-run outlet, that “stronger navy will safeguard peace.”

A report by the Global Times a day later headlined: “Unlike the US throwing around its naval weight, development of aircraft carriers is unlikely to make China aggressive.” In its editorial on May 13, the same publication argued: “As its national strength enhances, China must take more responsibilities for world peace and stability … To fulfill its obligations, China should be stronger, and a powerful blue-water navy is indispensable.”

China’s rapid and ambitious naval build-up will not be benign and peaceful as its media and experts assume.

Yet, if its posture in the region, notably in the disputed South China Sea, during the last few years is any guide, China’s rapid and ambitious naval build-up will not be benign and peaceful as its media and experts assume. Perversely, the contrary may be the case.

It’s true that the People’s Republic is lagging behind the United States in terms of military powers and naval capabilities in particular. But, the military gap between the two superpowers has rapidly narrowed and will certainly become smaller, even can be closed, in the years or decades to come.

Talking to the US House Armed Services Committee in February, Admiral Harry Harris, who was then soon to retire as the head of US Pacific Command, said China’s military build-up was expanding at such a pace that it could soon rival American power “across almost every domain.”

In April, his successor, Phil Davidson, held the same view, telling the US Senate Armed Services Committee that “China has undergone a rapid military modernization … and is approaching parity [with the US] in a number of critical areas.”

Maritime superpower is Beijing’s goal

Then again, whilst it’s open to debate whether and when China’s military and its navy, in particular, will match the US’s, it’s irrefutable that Beijing is seeking to expand China’s naval capabilities and to transform the country into a maritime superpower.

When reviewing the PLA Navy’s huge military parade — the largest of its kind in the PRC since its founding in 1949 — in the South China Sea in April, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also heads the world’s biggest political party and largest military, called for efforts to build a world-class navy.

In fact, since he came to power in 2012, one of Xi’s top priorities is to modernize China’s military and its navy in particular. The ultimate aim of such a strategy is to control or dominate not only the strategically vital and resource-rich South China Sea but also the whole “first island chain” — a huge maritime area that runs from the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East, through Japan, Taiwan, and the northern Philippines, to the Malay Peninsula in the south — and even beyond.

China’s naval operations have a broad range

A US Congressional Research Service report on “China’s Naval Modernization” published last month found that “China’s navy has become a formidable military force within China’s near-seas region, and it is conducting a growing number of operations in more-distant waters, including the broader waters of the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and waters around Europe.”

In its May 16’s article, the Global Times quoted a Chinese naval expert as saying that, “The PLA Navy’s mission is to safeguard China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national interests.” This same article said the Asian giant “will deploy the aircraft carriers in the regions important to its national interest.” It also quoted a scholar at the PLA Naval Research Institute as stating “currently, the Western Pacific Ocean and the Northern Indian Ocean are important for the country’s national interests” and specified that most of its “security concerns emanate from the Western Pacific Ocean, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.”

The problem for China is that (much of) what it claims as its sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests is also contested by others.

The problem for China is that (much of) what it claims as its “sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests” is also contested by others. Taiwan and the South China Sea are the cases in point.

Indeed, in July 2016, an arbitral tribunal formed under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) invalided many of China’s contentious statements and unlawful actions — including its claim of historic rights to resources within its so-called ‘nine-dash line’, which covers almost the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.

But as it has become so powerful, China has ignored the landmark, legally binding ruling.

China is, in fact, locked in territorial disputes with not only the South China Sea claimant nations, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, but also other regional powers, such as Japan in the East China Sea.

Last month, Australia’s three warships were reportedly confronted by the PLA Navy in the South China Sea when they were on their way from the Philippines’s Subic Bay to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.

What is worrying (for the US, its allies, and other regional countries) is that the stronger China’s military and navy become, the bolder its posture is.

China’s militarization bring US warning

It is no coincidence that since 2012, Beijing has hugely expanded and militarized in the South China Sea. Early this month, it was reported that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its man-made outposts in the disputed sea. The US warned Beijing of “near-term and long-term consequences” for its growing militarization. Vietnam, China’s communist neighbor, said it was “extremely concerned” about reports of China’s missile deployment and asked Beijing to withdraw its missiles as all such “militarization activities, including the installation of missiles on the Spratly islands, is a serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.”

As previously noted, in many of his major speeches both at home and, especially abroad, Xi Jinping portrays his country as a very peaceful, responsible and rules-based nation that not only never seeks hegemony or engages in expansion but also strongly safeguards world peace as well as international institutions and rules.

When it comes to the South China Sea, however, Xi’s China does the opposite of what he preaches.

That’s why the claims that China “is not seeking hegemony over or control of the oceans” or that the country’s “development of aircraft carriers is unlikely to make [it] aggressive” would hardly convince anyone — not least those who are currently in territorial disputes with Beijing and/or wary of its maritime actions and ambitions.

What’s more, China’s rapid naval modernization and its ambitious aircraft carrier program will sooner or later force these countries to strengthen their own military and naval capabilities. This will inevitably result in an arms race in the region.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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