Tuesday, August 23, 2011

China's New Aircraft Carrier and How Does It Affect India?


Here's the link to an article of mine on the new Chinese aircraft carrier published by ORF.

China's ability for air and sea power projection in its neighbourhood is significant and growing, and its first aircraft carrier is another indicator. The carrier would provide China the ability to project its power even farther.



Earlier this month, the PLA Navy (PLAN) began the sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, the refurbished Varyag. Senior Colonel Li Xiaoyan, a member of China's first warship academy class in 1987, is set to command the ship while three other officers have been appointed as Deputy Captains. Besides there are seven other senior officers who have reportedly undergone training at the Guangzhou Naval Academy since 2008 and dispatched to Varyag in December 2010. Li has been chosen as the commander given that he is one of the first who could both pilot aircraft and sail warships.

While details are still awaited, a picture
available of the aircraft carrier also does not reveal much. However, it seems in line with what Can Weidong of the PLA Navy's Academic Research Institute had said, that it will be a "conventionally powered medium-sized carrier that would be equipped with Chinese engines, aircraft, radar and other hardware."

What is likely to be the utility of aircraft carrier to China? Does it enhance Chinese security significantly? And, how does the Varyag impact upon Indian interests or the larger Asian security framework?

Varyag, a Soviet-era carrier not very old, relative to other carriers, was bought from Ukraine in 1998 and underwent serious rework and refitting at a shipyard in Dalian in Liaoning Province. While there was no doubt that China will have its own aircraft carrier, the world has gone wrong in their assessments as far as the timeline was concerned. Many of the western assessments had calculated that Beijing will have its first carrier by 2012 or so. However, today the aircraft carrier is only undergoing initial sea trials, possibly checking the engines (it is not clear yet whether it uses the gas turbine, steam turbine or marine diesel engine. China does not yet have indigenous gas or steam turbine production capabilities and it is not believed to have procured these engines from foreign sources.), navigation equipment, electronics fire control and maintenance operations. But they are a long way away from carrying fighter jets. It is no surprise because no aircraft carrier carries planes on such early trials. It will be years before they have a carrier battle group comprising a consolidated group of frigates, destroyers, submarines and other accessories.

What does an aircraft carrier mean for China? Aircraft carriers have significant utility in enforcing sea control and sea denial strategies given the importance of air power superiority in combat, especially for power projection purposes. Having an aircraft carrier in its armoury does not mean much as yet and China is years away from being capable of even effective sea denial strategy in the East Asian region. However, as a rising power, China will possess such capabilities and more in the future. If there are no serious hitches, the PLAN plans to induct the carrier into service by October 2012, though this sounds ambitious.

China's plans to induct an aircraft carrier is in perfect alignment with the assertive naval posturing that it has been displaying vis a vis its neighbours in the recent years - be it the East China Sea or the South China Sea. In fact, aircraft carrier would provide Beijing with what it apparently sees as the coercive means for enforcing its claims in these two seas. Reportedly, a Chinese defence ministry-run website made it clear to say that the carrier should handle territorial disputes as well. A PLA Daily article too noted that in a theatre like the South China Sea, the strategic manoeuvre that is possible with a carrier would provide them the ability to apply significant air-to-ground firepower during military missions, while not being affected by geographical restrictions. They in fact see the aircraft carrier as a "mobile maritime airport." Chinese strategists believe that such kind of "deterrent" abilities would be important in defending the high seas as well as the coastal waters.

The timing is curious too. They flight-tested their stealth fighter during the US Defence Secretary's visit; and this time they decided to conduct the aircraft carrier sea trials around the same time as US Vice President Joe Biden's visit. It is unclear if this is a coincidence or a signal to the US.

What does the Chinese aircraft carrier mean for India and other neighbours? In the first place, it would induce caution in other maritime powers in the region, particularly India, US and Japan. China's submarine force already has produced this effect on these powers; the aircraft carrier would compound it.

As for the Southeast Asian countries, the Chinese aircraft carrier would be a display of power and prestige. In fact, a PLA Daily article said that the aircraft carrier has far greater political significance than military significance. This is particularly important given that until a few years back, the PLAN was the weakest wing of the Chinese military. But this has changed now with greater attention in favour of the naval and air wing of the military. China believes that aircraft carriers are important if they want to be able to control the air and have effective presence in areas that may be away from its territorial limits. Display of power and prestige is important both for the internal and external audiences.

Analysts have talked about China's ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare against Indian nuclear submarines although it is too early to judge this yet. However, China's ability for air and sea power projection in its neighbourhood is significant and growing, and the aircraft carrier is another indicator. The carrier would provide China the ability to project its power even farther. China has already begun anti-piracy operations off the waters of Somalia and refuelling in the Karachi port. An aircraft carrier would provide them far greater options in the near future.

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