A launch ceremony is held for China’s latest and most advanced aircraft carrier, Fujian, at a dock in Shanghai on June 17. Photo: Xinhua via AP
Donald Kirk
Donald Kirk

As China’s naval might grows, South Korea must shore up its defences

  • China’s launch of its domestically designed and built aircraft carrier signals its emergence as a major naval power in the struggle for dominance in the Pacific
  • While there are obvious implications for the US and possibly Taiwan, South Korea should also be stirred into expanding its own naval capability

China is now challenging the United States for supremacy in the Pacific Ocean. The challenge is not yet at the stage of armed conflict, but the day may be coming when Chinese warships want to take on the American navy in the East China and South China seas and beyond.

This challenge comes in the form of China’s emergence as a major naval power with the launch of its aircraft carrier, the Fujian. Significantly, it is named after the Chinese province closest to Taiwan.

The real importance of the Fujian is that it is entirely Chinese designed, engineered and built. That places it in a class above China’s other two aircraft carriers, one a refitted carrier used by the navy of the former Soviet Union, the other made in China but based on Russian designs.

The Fujian is likely to be the first of several aircraft carriers China is planning to produce as a response to American carriers’ domination of the Pacific. The Fujian is diesel-powered, but the next Chinese aircraft carriers are sure to be nuclear-powered like those of the United States.


What is known about the Fujian, China’s first home-designed aircraft carrier

What is known about the Fujian, China’s first home-designed aircraft carrier
China may hope to be able to stand up to the United States in the Taiwan Strait, where it was last forced to back down in 1996. Bill Clinton, then the US president, ordered the aircraft carrier Nimitz, accompanied by a battle group, into the straits after Beijing fired missiles near Taiwan.

US aircraft carriers in South China Sea and why they anger Beijing

Beijing, then as now, was outraged by suspicions that Taiwan was about to declare independence. Actually, in the interests of peace, Taiwan, then as now, was not likely to issue such a proclamation.
As China establishes itself as a formidable naval power, it would like to make it clear that the US must not stand in the way of Beijing’s ambitions for the region.
While Taiwan is the most visible issue around which war might break out, China has also sent warnings to US forces in the South China Sea and is guaranteeing North Korea’s defences as well.
Beijing is still not able to keep American warships and planes from defying its claims over the South China Sea, but the balance might change if Chinese nuclear aircraft carriers and other vessels show up in large numbers. China already has nuclear-powered submarines, and it is building destroyers and smaller carriers for sending drone aircraft on research missions all over the southern Pacific.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained

China’s rising naval strength has repercussions around the Korean peninsula. The US has often sent carriers into the waters on both sides of South Korea as a show of force against North Korea.

In the next few years, with its own nuclear carriers, China would be able to challenge the US in northeast Asia, as well as in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. South Korea, and the US, have more to fear from this than from North Korea’s missiles and nuclear warheads, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un holds as a threat but isn’t likely to use.
For South Korea, the prospect of China becoming a naval power, approaching the same size and strength as the American navy in the Pacific, is a danger against which it needs to prepare itself. South Korea’s navy is still too small to do much more than try to protect its long, highly vulnerable coastlines, but the country now should seriously consider making its own carriers.
A destroyer belonging to the South Korean Navy takes part in a military drill in the Sea of Japan on August 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/ South Korean Navy

Seoul may not want to get involved in the issue of Taiwan while attempting to adopt an even-handed position towards China, but it must be able to defend its shores.

As China builds up its navy, South Korea, too, should become a major naval power. It has many years’ experience building super-container ships, tankers and numerous other vessels. It has also produced smaller warships ranging from destroyers to submarines.

Say it with aircraft carriers: why countries send in the big ships

China’s aspirations in the Pacific are a threat to both South Korea and the United States, as well as Japan. The South Korean navy, like its air and ground forces, should be ready to ensure that China, on its own or in league with a resurgent Russia or North Korea, will never become so strong as to endanger South Korea.

Ideally, South Korea should ally with the United States in opposing the prospect of Chinese domination in the Pacific. The launch of China’s third aircraft carrier should be a wake-up call to all nations.

Donald Kirk is an author and journalist from Washington.