China’s launch of a new aircraft carrier, its third and the second built entirely at home, speaks to Beijing’s ambitions to become a military power of global standing and reach. And it suggests that China is prepared to compete with the United States on what has long been Washington’s strongest territory. U.S. military dominance, particularly in Asia, is built on maritime power, which in turn is built around its carrier fleet. Now China is offering a direct challenge: Anything you can do, we can do bigger and better.
Except, not quite.
It’s true that the new Type 003 carrier, now formally named Fujian, is a big improvement on China’s first two carriers. Both of those were smaller, which means they carry fewer aircraft. And they featured what’s known as a “ski jump,” a ramp at the bow of the ship that helps jets take off from the carrier’s short runway.
The ski jump imposes big constraints on the size, weight, and payload of the aircraft being launched, which is why the United States has always preferred steam-driven catapults to hurl aircraft off the ship at high speed. The Type 003 will use catapults, too, and they will be a more advanced electromagnetic design rather than steam-powered. This catches China up to the very latest U.S. technology, so far seen only on the new USS Gerald Ford.
But unlike the Ford and every other serving American carrier, Fujian is not nuclear-powered, which will make it more dependent on support ships to achieve long range and endurance. And then there is the issue of scale. This is China’s first supercarrier, now launched but certainly not finished and still several years from entering service. The United States has 11 supercarriers, each one more powerful than China’s first effort.
Quite apart from the continued massive difference in fleet size and capability, we should also think twice about framing China’s carrier fleet as a direct challenge to the United States. A confrontation between surface fleets centered around carriers in the style of the Battle of Midway is a remote prospect. Submarines and anti-ship missiles are now so potent and omnipresent that aircraft carriers probably wouldn’t survive long in a major war.
But that may not be the point. For the United States, aircraft carriers have been useful in the post-Cold War era against countries that were largely defenseless when it comes to naval warfare—Iraq, Libya, and Yugoslavia, for instance. In fact, the U.S. Navy has tacitly acknowledged this point by gradually decreasing the range of the combat aircraft it fields aboard its carriers. Why bother with long range if you can safely sail the carrier itself close to enemy shores?
China may be designing its carrier fleet for the same purpose. It wants a force that can help the Communist Party coerce or punish smaller powers, not fight a peer competitor. Right now, of course, China would find it hard to deploy this kind of power without stumbling into America’s security network in Asia. But already that network is fraying at the edges, as China has demonstrated by effectively taking control of the South China Sea, building artificial islands there and equipping them with military facilities. It happened without much resistance from the United States, which quite understandably calculated that its interests were not so threatened by China’s moves that it would be willing to risk a major war. That same nagging question—is America’s military leadership and alliance network in Asia really important enough to risk a confrontation with the biggest rival the United States has ever faced?—is slowly eroding the credibility of the U.S.-centered security architecture of the region.
So, the Type 003 may not be a direct challenge to American naval power. Rather, it is a sign that China is thinking about an era when the credibility of U.S. power in Asia has further eroded and when China itself has a freer hand to deal with smaller countries. In other words, China is building a post-American fleet.
Yet China cannot hope to dominate maritime Asia with aircraft carriers alone. The Pacific is vast, and even China’s resources will be thinly spread. Beijing will need foreign bases to improve surveillance of the region and reduce transit time for its aircraft and warships. The Washington Post recently reported that China is building a naval facility in Cambodia. Beijing also signed a security agreement with the small Pacific nation of Solomon Islands, which Australia worries is a precursor to a much more expansive Chinese military presence in a region Canberra regards as its sphere of influence.
Most Asian countries would prefer a future in which China is not the dominant power. But they also recognize that the United States cannot maintain its military edge against a challenger of this scale. So, the first part of any counter to China’s rise as a military power is to recognize that it cannot be left to the Americans.
Regional powers such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should also recognize that the response to China’s challenge cannot be solely military. China’s basing ambitions in the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia won’t be countered with weapons. It must be done with statecraft, a diplomatic and economic effort to ensure that any Chinese ambitions to develop client-state relationships in Asia will be permanently frustrated.
While it can’t be the only answer, a military counter to China’s ambitions is achievable. China itself offers a good model for how smaller countries can protect themselves against seemingly overwhelming naval power. In the first few decades of its military modernization drive, China focused not on how it could dominate the oceans but on how it could stop the United States from dominating. It built a vast array of anti-ship capabilities for that purpose: submarines, aircraft armed with sea-skimming missiles, small high-speed naval vessels that “shoot and scoot” before an enemy can respond, and even ballistic missiles that can hit ships moving at sea—and that are almost impossible to defend against.
The result has been to make the seas close to China’s shores incredibly dangerous for U.S. Navy surface ships to operate in. In a war, their defenses would simply be overwhelmed by Chinese missiles.
On a smaller scale, that model of self-defense is viable for other countries against China’s growing surface fleet. Just as the Chinese military made it too dangerous for the United States to operate its carriers close to China, so too can smaller powers in Asia build a maritime strategy focused on negation, with an emphasis on anti-ship missiles, submarines, naval mines, and other weapons that will inhibit free movement of China’s fleet.
It would be too costly and risky to stop China from becoming the leading maritime power in Asia, but with smart investment, smaller countries can certainly erode the coercive potential of the Chinese fleet and stop Beijing from becoming the dominant power. Carriers are a sign of Chinese power—but that doesn’t mean Beijing has to rule the waves.