[Viewpoint] The threat of China’s aircraft carrierWith its economy growing, China has been constantly pursuing military modernization. China’s high-tech navy and air force have made neighboring countries nervous through its development of stealth aircraft, augmentation of submarine capacity and improvement of antiship missiles. Recently, Beijing made the test voyage of its Varyag aircraft carrier public and declared the start of the era of the Chinese aircraft carrier.
It is not news that China has had interest in aircraft carriers for a while. It is hard to confirm the carrier’s exact military capacity, but it is presumed that the Varyag has radar equipment, an anti-air missile system and a defense system similar to the Aegis Combat System.
For an aircraft carrier to have operational capacity, it needs to be equipped with necessary weapons systems and to have control capacity over carrier-based aircraft. A carrier strike group should be formed for an aircraft carrier to be used in a military operation. A carrier strike group is comprised of at least one cruiser, a destroyer squadron, submarines, early alarm system and a large supply ship to protect and assist the carrier.
The dominant opinion about China’s aircraft carrier is that it would take more time to build complete combat capability and form a carrier strike group.
The prime motivation behind Beijing’s plan to develop aircraft carriers is the desire to secure a symbolic weapons system to boast its growing political power. There is no better means than an aircraft carrier to boost national pride and reputation. Those who are skeptical about the strategic utility of an aircraft carrier and the technological level of the Chinese aircraft carrier believe that Beijing values the political impact. Secondly, securing stable long-distance marine transport routes is essential for continued economic development. Therefore, Beijing needs an aircraft carrier to expand its operational domain.
China has various reasons to reinforce the ability to project military power. The regional territorial disputes at sea are aggravating day by day. Therefore, China may have decided that it needs to have dominance in maritime aerial strength not only to defend its own territory but also to promote high-handed diplomacy with neighbors and deny the approach of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region in an emergency situation.
It makes sense that China has complicated intentions behind developing an aircraft carrier, given that China’s national interests change when its national strength and international status are drastically enhanced.
China’s test voyage of the aircraft carrier and the dawn of the “era of Chinese aircraft carriers” have become a military reality that neighboring countries have to bear with. The United States made a limited response of demanding military transparency from China. Washington appears to care about the stealth jets and anti-aircraft-carrier ballistic missiles. Japan responded more sensitively, demanding that China explain why it needs aircraft carriers.
If Japan attempts to build aircraft carrier capacity as well, it is likely that competition of naval strength between China and Japan would intensify in Northeast Asia. India is especially sensitive to China’s aircraft carrier capacity, expressing concerns about China’s advancement into the Indian Ocean. It signals strategic rivalry between India and China in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, Vietnam and the Philippines are also anxious about China’s aircraft carrier development as they are involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China’s aircraft carrier development thrusts mid- and long-term strategic challenges to Korea as well. The competition of naval forces in Northeast Asia, including aircraft carrier capacity, is a serious challenge and threat to Korea. In case of emergency on the Korean Peninsula, China may attempt to confront U.S. aircraft carriers or deny their approach to the region.
Korea needs to prepare for different situations, effectively combining military deterrence and cooperation.
Korea can secure military deterrence by reinforcing joint deterrence capacity with the United States. At the same time, Korea and China may want to pursue diversified and active military cooperation to enhance military transparency. China’s entry into the era of aircraft carriers calls for a wiser and a more flexible strategic response by Korea.
*The writer is a professor at the Korea National Defense University.
By Lee Seok-soo