China launched its first homemade aircraft carrier at the end of last month, bringing the number of the nation’s seagoing combat airbases to two, and Beijing expects to add two more to its fleet by 2021.
For the record, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, the namesake of its northeastern province, in September 2012, after more than a decade of painstaking efforts to purchase and restore the former Soviet Union-built hulk.
By comparison, the Soviet Union, now Russia, whose technologies were once much emulated by the then infant Chinese navy, has at present only one carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, launched in 1985 as the flagship of the Kuznetsov-class to which Liaoning once belonged. The steam-propelled Russian warship is now becoming obsolete after decades of use.
Mainland party mouthpieces have been buzzing about the might of the Chinese carriers. A commentator at state broadcaster CCTV even burst into tears in a live feature program on the new carrier.
The Chinese navy’s giant leap, however, also comes at a cost, said veteran columnist Ma Ding-sheng, who hosts a popular military affairs talk show on Phoenix TV.
“China’s ‘grade-skipping’ – building and operating full-scale aircraft carriers from scratch – means it lacks experience as there is no shortcut. You have to gain experience in steps, from running small to medium-sized vertical/short takeoff and landing airbases in the sea all the way to big carriers,” Ma told the Hong Kong Economic Journal.
“The two carriers Beijing has in hand, both of the same maximum displacement capacity of 67,500 tonnes, may be too big and too many for its navy to handle, and I have my doubts when it comes to their genuine combat readiness.
“Also, a carrier will be out on a limb without cruisers, destroyer squadrons, supply ships and other escorts that form a complete strike group, which in turn, is a bigger, even more complicated task than just building a carrier itself.
Chinese carriers vs. US supercarriers
“The Chinese navy has grown its capacity phenomenally compared to its past, but let’s be clear, it’s still far from being in the same league as the US… Both the Liaoning and the homemade copycat carrier, not yet christened, are at best mix of technologies that were considered advanced in the 1980s, thus they are anachronistic as seen by today’s standards. And don’t forget the US has started equipping its navy with ultra large supercarriers.”
The US is rolling out the next generation of carriers, the Gerald R. Ford class with a displacement of 110,000 tons. The namesake lead ship of the class is expected to be commissioned this year, with John F. Kennedy and Enterprise currently under construction and 10 more planned. The US now has altogether 10 carriers in active service.
“Other than the size, nuclear propulsion is the US carriers’ other edge over Beijing’s steam-powered ships, the former can sail at 32 knots (nautical miles) per hour, three knots faster than the Chinese carriers… the seemingly small difference is significant during wartime. You need more than three times the power from turbines to increase the speed by just 5 percent.
“A slow-moving carrier can be a drag during take-offs of fighter jets and thus their combat capacity and responsiveness. The cruising range is another key determinant. A typical US nuclear carrier is capable of a single run of some 300,000 kilometers without a refill, enough to circle the planet more than 8 times, but conventionally powered ships need far more frequent refueling during wartime.”
“Placing a small nuclear plant inside a carrier is both challenging and expensive. It’s just like jamming a desktop PC into the size of a tablet without compromising its performance. Still, China may acquire the key technologies one day, since it has already built several nuclear submarines,” Ma said.
Beijing and the two Koreas
Stakes are running high following Pyongyang’s renewed nuclear program and missile tests and Seoul’s deployment of the US-built anti-ballistic Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Legally speaking, the two feuding governments on the Korean Peninsula have always been in a state of war.
“Kim Jong-un has to cling to his nuclear plan when North Korea’s comradeship with China is wearing thin. Beijing now regards Pyongyang as a rogue nation while Pyongyang is also getting antsy, when its old ally has long veered away from the doctrine of communism,” Ma said.
“A show of bravado, like testing nuclear weapons, even if they are dumb bombs, can be Kim’s only leverage in the event of a war to make other parties return to the negotiating table, a war he is otherwise doomed to lose… He also needs nukes to convince his people so as to stay in power. The Kims and the Workers’ Party have committed inexpiable crimes against the people and Kim Jong-un has to portray external threats and that he is the only leader that can defend the country.”
But will Beijing ultimately ditch Pyongyang?
“Not likely. Beijing would rather have a lesser evil: an estranged Pyongyang is still better than letting Seoul reunite the entire peninsula, as the latter is a genuine US ally.
“Beijing won’t push Pyongyang too much either, as that will boomerang. In the unlikely scenario of a nuclear war, if Kim is backed into a corner, Beijing just has as much to lose as Seoul. Beijing’s best bet is to maintain the status quo.”
THAAD is none of Beijing’s business
As for the high-profile THAAD spat between Beijing and Seoul, the crux of the issue is that the anti-missile shield will render Beijing’s independently targeted multiple warhead missiles, the trump card that used to unsettle Washington, toothless.
“Having THAAD at China’s doorstep enables Washington to identify and track the real warheads and thus destroy them before they hit US targets,” Ma said.
“Beijing can hardly make a case for its censure, as Seoul’s decision to have THAAD installed on its own soil is none of Beijing’s business, let alone the system is purely for defense purposes. Beijing is fuming over the close proximity of the system, but I don’t think the Chinese leaders would ever give a hoot to Seoul’s protests if, say, they want to deploy powerful missiles at Seoul’s doorstep.
“Beijing’s constant refrain is that countries, big and small, have to play by the same rules. But the THAAD fiasco contradicts that. If you are a big guy, you can of course bully others or bludgeon your way through, but once you’re doing so, you will never be on a moral high ground.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 10.
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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