The Chinese carrier Liaoning at sea. Photo Credit: CGTN.
Many Americans have assumed that China’s development of a carrier fleet is the precursor to Chinese aggression throughout East Asia. However, this view is built on a Western, Mahanian concept of sea power. It is entirely plausible that China’s current carrier fleet, and its navy more broadly, is designed for a limited aim: creating a naval “bastion” inside the first island chain where Chinese forces can safely operate. While American naval thinkers are influenced by lessons from the US experiences in the World Wars and Cold War, this is inadequate in discerning Chinese intentions.
Why has China sought to develop a robust carrier capability if not to project power? After all, aircraft carriers are frequently defined as offensive, power projection weapons. China has already launched two small aircraft carriers and is currently developing its first indigenous, full-size aircraft carrier. Moreover, China is expanding its shipyards to better accommodate increased production of these larger vessels.[i] Many American naval thinkers assume that the objective of China’s carrier production lies in its overseas interests because of their own historical experiences.
American assumptions about naval forces are grounded in American history. In the Quasi-War and the War of 1812, the U.S. learned that without an oceangoing navy, its commerce was vulnerable to the predations of the great powers. This drove the development of Mahanian naval strategy. In World War I and World War II, the U.S. had to learn the importance of protecting the sea lanes from hunting U-Boats. These lessons have also shaped American assumptions about how other states view seapower.
During the Cold War, American assumptions led to faulty assessments of Soviet intentions. “Between 1966 and 1970 only 88 new ships joined the US fleet; during the same period the Soviets built 209.”[i] American naval officers assumed that the USSR would operate just as Germany had in the two World Wars: using submarine forces and independent surface combatants to threaten American naval forces and interdict American supplies. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, argued that the Soviets could “deny us the sea lanes, which is their job.”[ii] In the 1980s, however, American intelligence breakthroughs proved that Soviet Naval strategy actually centered around protecting the Soviet sea-based deterrent inside strategic “bastions” close to the USSR itself.[iii] The United States had “mirror imaged” the Soviet Navy into a radically different threat than the one they actually faced.
The same institutional biases could be driving American views of China’s naval expansion as well. However, we should expect the Chinese to have a radically different conception of the role for their navy. In the Sino-French War, the Opium Wars, and the Sino-Japanese War, China was humiliated and colonized due, largely, to its weakness at sea. Throughout the 20th century, and as recently as the Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1996, China was coerced by the United States, which was able to deploy massive carrier battle groups into Chinese backyard virtually unopposed.
China, therefore, will have learned its own lessons about the fungibility of naval power. Primarily, China seems to believe that its growth will be constrained by Western powers unless it has a buffer zone stretching out to the first island chain. The “nine-dash line” could provide just that.
China’s aircraft carriers are not large, nor are they nuclear powered. Reports indicate that even China’s full-size carrier would be smaller than American carriers, though larger than France’s 42,500 ton Charles de Gualle. This will limit their range and combat air wing. Most of China’s submarines, while extremely advanced, are diesel-electric, so their range is also limited. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that China plans to keep these carriers and submarines inside the first island chain, using them as mobile forces only to attack any American naval forces that attempt to break through. Chinese fortifications on artificial islands, along with long range ASBM’s could attrite approaching forces before they could arrive in theater.
The challenge facing American naval thinkers is determining why China has pursued the capabilities it has and what that means for American interests in the Pacific. Unless Americans are able to look beyond their own analogical blinders and institutional heuristics, an accurate assessment will be impossible.
[i] “Exclusive: Satellite Images Reveal China’s Aircraft Carrier ‘factory,’ Analysts Say,” Reuters, October 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-military-carrier-exclusive-idUSKBN1WW0KM.
[i] Lisle A. Rose, A Violent Peace, 1946-2006. Vol. 3 of Power at Sea (Columbia, MO/ USA: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 190.
[ii] John W. Finney, “Retiring Navy Chief Say US Has Lost Control of Sea Lanes to Russians,” New York Times, May 14, 1974.
[iii] Christopher A. Ford and David A. Rosenberg, “The Naval Intelligence Underpinnings of Reagan’s Maritime Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 2 (Apr 1, 2005), 379-409.