China needs aircraft carriers to help maintain national and international security
The growing threats from extremists, criminals and natural disasters requires cooperation among global powers
Security, for a country as big as China, is a complex matter. There is every need for the second aircraft carrier under construction and announced on the final day of 2015. When completed, it will be an element, although an important part, of the development of a comprehensive national defence system. Image and symbolism are factors, but so, too, is the need to ensure that interests at home and abroad are protected and that a significant role can be played in maintaining regional and international peace and stability.
Carriers, along with long-range missiles, nuclear weapons and space exploration, are perceived as global status symbols. But they are much more than that. The vessels and the planes they carry are central to the creation of a blue-water navy, able to operate far beyond Chinese territorial waters. China, its commercial and business interests and people spreading to every part of the world, needs that. So, too, does the international community, the growing threats from extremists, criminals and natural disasters requiring cooperation among global powers.
Beijing laid out its case for a global role for the military in its first white paper on defence strategy, released last May. It says “the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China’s overseas interests”. It will be some time before that can be done as effectively as possible, though; the first carrier, the Russian-built Liaoning, is largely used for training and has yet to leave Chinese waters since being refurbished and commissioned in 2012. The new carrier will be home-built, but a lack of expertise in designing and constructing large-scale military vessels means it will be smaller and less technologically advanced than the 10 active in the US Navy, which has by far the world’s biggest fleet.
Being conventionally powered rather than nuclear and using a ski-jump system to launch J-15 fighter jets is part of the learning process. More carriers will be built in coming decades and China will be better positioned to meet national and global challenges. Its carrier programme may seem anachronistic in an age of enemy aircraft and drones, missiles and submarines, but there is no better way to provide air protection and support should other countries refuse the use of air space and ground bases. That is a necessity if China is to be a power on the seas and may appear threatening to rivals and neighbours’ worried about its rise. But Beijing’s aim for global growth and development has been clearly laid out; in a world of connectivity where cooperation is so important, the world also benefits.