China's third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is launched in Shanghai on June 17, 2022. Photo: VCG

The launch of China’s third aircraft carrier, Fujian, provides a welcome respite to a country struggling to adapt to the evolving challenge of Covid.

China’s self-imposed target of maintaining “zero-Covid” has stirred plenty of internal frustration. But “naval nationalism” – the phenomenon in which people feel united by the site of such a symbol of national strength – has worked well for Beijing and the mighty warship’s arrival is, therefore, most timely for Chinese leaders.

Some naval theorists might legitimately question the strategic rationale for China’s force of aircraft carriers. Can such traditional warships survive against the onslaught of anti-ship technologies, ranging from drones to satellite reconnaissance to nuclear submarines to anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) like the truck-mounted missiles that recently sank the pride of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Moskva?

Ironically, it is China that has pioneered some of these fearsome weapons, such as anti-ship ballistic missiles or hypersonic anti-ship missiles. Moreover, such expensive behemoths would seem to be quite unnecessary for the conquest of Taiwan, which is a mere 90 miles off the Chinese coast and thus within easy reach of nearly all of China’s myriad land-based combat aircraft.

But as many strategists have pointed out, China’s military aims go well beyond Taiwan. The possibility of new Chinese bases in locations, such as the Solomon Islands or Cambodia or in West Africa, cannot be ruled out.

Chinese warships have roamed far and wide over the last decade, approaching Alaska and even entering into both the sensitive Persian Gulf and Baltic Sea areas in recent years. Indeed, Chinese strategists have been quite clear about their intent to operate regularly in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Chinese Navy’s Fujian itself represents a major step up from previous Chinese aircraft carriers, and could even come close to wielding a similar combat capability as a US aircraft carrier.

Unlike its Chinese predecessors, the new hull is not sloped with a ski jump, but rather is flat in the “American style.” This demonstrates that Fujian is equipped with catapults for launching aircraft. Catapults are capable of launching larger and heavier aircraft into the air. 

Thus, Fujian will allow the Chinese Navy to operate the large early warning/battle management aircraft with large radar domes (similar to the US Navy’s E-2), along with heavily laden combat aircraft, hefting anti-ship cruise missiles, for example.

The Fujian carrier’s launch was described by state media as a ‘short but festive’ ceremony. Photo: CCTV

Notably, Fujian apparently will employ electromagnetic catapults – only used so far on the advanced USS Ford aircraft carrier, implying that this Chinese warship could potentially take advantage of this among other cutting-edge technologies.

As to the difficulty of defending such massive ships, that would form an obvious priority target for any of China’s adversaries, the issue has not been overlooked in Beijing.

Indeed, the Chinese Navy has produced the Type 055 cruiser in the last decade and this ship’s main mission appears to be to provide robust air and missile defense for Chinese carriers. That vessel may also be on par with US Navy equivalents.

Anti-submarine warfare could be more challenging for the Chinese Navy, but here too, the PLA Navy has been making steady progress.

Indeed, Chinese naval writings note that Chinese carrier battle groups may be weaker than US Navy carrier formations, but the Chinese carrier group is intended to function as one part of an integrated national “combat system.”

In such a scheme, land-based air or long-range missiles are to be used to keep adversary carrier battle groups at a distance, allowing the Chinese carriers to take up crucial blocking positions, most likely in a Taiwan scenario.

In such a scenario, Chinese naval strategists suggest that Fujian and its sister ships would sail to the eastern side of Taiwan with the following tasks: blockading and striking the island itself, but notably also covering the egress of China’s submarine force out into the larger Pacific, and preventing US bombers stationed in Guam from striking at China’s invasion fleet.

The US would be foolish to underestimate China’s naval prowess. If some chuckles accompanied China’s initial “starter carrier” Liaoning, a converted Soviet hull that was originally supposed to be a floating casino, few are laughing now.

The Chinese Navy has indeed come a long way in a short period of time and Fujian represents a non-negligible increase in Chinese naval combat power.

In response, Washington should move along two tracks simultaneously. Keeping its “powder dry,” the US Navy should double down on its undersea warfare advantage, since submarines are and will continue to be the most important “capital ships” in contemporary fleets, even if “big decks” get more cinematic attention. 

At the same time, US diplomats should embrace the tried and true combination of realism and restraint. It is simply not possible to be strong everywhere, so American presidents should seek to narrow down defense commitments, without prejudice or favor, to those that objectively constitute vital national security interests.

In this way, the US can truly “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and a visiting professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @lylegoldstein

Lyle Goldstein

Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and a visiting professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @lylegoldstein.