Comments by China's national defense spokesman last month make it about as official as it's going to get: China's navy is in the market for an aircraft carrier. This is a sign that Beijing sees its ultimate prize within grasp: emergence as East Asia's preeminent great power. So should the region, and the protector of its stability for the last half century, the United States, be worried?
First things first: China is not about to knock America off its perch as the world's sole superpower. Developing the capacity to deploy aircraft carriers is a feat of incredible complexity. China's carrier project will take at least a decade to realize, and it will require billions of dollars and a great deal of the country's military design capacity. Even the Soviet Union found it difficult to master carrier operation, as China knows full well -- since 1998 it has bought the hulks of three Soviet carriers to study them. Just forming the flotilla to protect one carrier would require most of the modern ships currently in China's fleet.
Yet there's every reason to believe China will achieve its goal eventually and deploy multiple carriers. It will likely start by using aircraft bought from Russia but go on to develop its own weapons systems. China will end up with a much smaller ship than the American super-carriers, with weapons about a generation behind. But this will still put it far ahead of its neighbors -- no East Asian country currently has carrier capacity.
So the balance of power in Asia is going to shift dramatically in the decade ahead, and nowhere will the effects be more evident than in the South China Sea. Beijing is already constructing a major naval base on its southern island of Hainan. The naval buildup would give Beijing a freer hand to enforce its claims to South China Sea islands -- claims that are disputed by five other countries. The waters through which much of the world's trade now flows, from the Malacca Strait to Taiwan, would effectively become a Chinese lake.
The timing of the move, too, is significant. China hesitated for years before declaring its intent to develop carrier capability because of the potential reaction of its neighbors. A Chinese aircraft carrier prowling the neighborhood could be the final straw that causes Southeast Asian nations to band together to protect their claims, or strengthen ties with the U.S. In particular, Vietnam has periodically hinted that it might put aside the past and form an alliance with Washington. By building up its military capability, China runs the risk of finding itself worse-off strategically.
But Beijing may feel it's now strong enough to fend off such moves. The underpinning of military power is economic strength. With the U.S. facing a major economic downturn, some in Beijing are looking forward to the decline of America's presence in the region, and they know that the leaders in other Asian capitals are making the same calculations. Now is an opportune time to push those leaders into accepting China's role as future regional hegemon, and test a new U.S. administration. If the U.S. were to relinquish its role, Southeast Asia might not be able to balance against China's might.
Already the doubts about the U.S. are inflicting a cost. Naval spending in Asia is surging, a development that could increase tensions along many other fault lines. The biggest question mark is how Japan, the only nation in the region that has the means and the motive to stand up to China, will react. Tokyo has long been preoccupied with securing the sea lanes through which its supply of oil passes. Should Japan feel the need to embark on a major rearmament program, it could touch off a regional arms race.
These are worst case scenarios. There is another possibility, however: that China's ambitious plan might be a positive development. In the past, the People's Liberation Army has emphasized asymmetrical warfare, apparently believing it could find inexpensive and innovative ways to counteract American might. If it is now moving toward a more conventional road of military modernization, pitting like against like, that is less likely to cause the miscalculations that lead to war, because China is less likely to be seduced by ideas that it can neutralize U.S. superiority with asymmetry.
The carrier plan also signals a shift away from devoting the bulk of the PLA's modernization drive to the goal of capturing of Taiwan. Beijing primarily needs more submarines and missiles to keep the U.S. out of the area and intimidate Taiwan into submission. A carrier would be little help in most such scenarios, since the island is already within easy range of land-based aircraft, and a carrier would be a tempting target for Taiwanese and U.S. forces.
A Chinese carrier could also participate in the kinds of goodwill missions that the U.S. has used to such positive effect. Since no other East Asian power possesses a carrier, China's new ship would be a status symbol, useful for showing the flag and enhancing national prestige. A carrier would also enable China to better contribute to peacekeeping and disaster-relief missions, as the U.S. showed after the tsunami four years ago.
The U.S. is watching these trends, and has reacted by redeploying state-of-the-art ships and aircraft to the western Pacific from elsewhere in the world, and building up facilities on Guam. But it needs to do more to persuade Asians that it intends to remain engaged in the region. Beijing has to get the message that trying to intimidate its neighbors will be self-defeating.
Hugo Restall is the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.© Asian Wall Street Journal