Cary Huang
SCMP Columnist
Sino File
by Cary Huang
Sino File
by Cary Huang

China’s aircraft carrier display harks back to ‘gunboat diplomacy’

First open-sea training exercise of the Liaoning is a milestone for the nation’s navy, but compared to the US, Chinese fleets are on their maiden voyage

The aircraft carrier is the most capable offshore warship ever built. It is considered a symbol of national and naval strength, and thus an indispensable part of China’s dream of building itself into a maritime power.

This made the first open-sea training exercise of China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, quite significant. Its voyage into the western Pacific has been a milestone for the nation’s navy, which has more a history of humiliation than of glory.

It’s the first time the vessel, which was commissioned in 2012, has ventured into distant waters, passing by Taiwan twice on its journey in the South China Sea.

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducts a drill in an area of South China Sea in December: Photo: Reuters

The high-profile exercise came soon after the US President-elect, Donald Trump, telephoned Taiwan’s independence-leaning president, Tsai Ing-wen, and openly questioned the “one China” policy, which riled Beijing. It also came amid escalating tensions over territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

While Beijing insisted the carrier, which was built from an incomplete Ukrainian hull, would be used mostly for training and research before being deployed, the high-profile display has still triggered widespread fears over the revival of “gunboat diplomacy” – seen around the world from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s call with US Presdient-elect Donald Trump helped raise tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Photo: EPA

The value of an aircraft carrier can be viewed from both a political and military standpoint. As the US has shown, it can be a nation’s best naval asset to demonstrate its superior military capabilities. It can also provide a country with significant clout within diplomatic circles and the media.

The US aircraft carrier Nimitz enters the South China Sea near Singapore with its deck loaded with planes. Photo: AFP

Just the voyage of an aircraft carrier and its subsequent port visits can deliver a strong message. This was well-known to Bill Clinton, the former US president who in 1995 dispatched two carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait in reaction to China’s military intimidation, which was triggered by the island’s swift democratic development.

For seven decades, US carrier fleets have offered decision-makers a range of diplomatic and strategic advantages and symbolised US global hegemony. This is why all rising powers are eager to develop their own aircraft carrier fleets to match their rising economic strength.

J-15 fighter jets from China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier make South China Sea debut

Most military experts say a country needs three carriers to ensure at least one is operational at all times. At present, however, only the US has more than two carriers.

With its first home-made carrier under construction, China aims to have three at its disposal within two decades. However, military analysts say that even if China can make good on its ambitious military modernisation programme, it would still have only limited proficiency and capabilities.

China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier will apply lessons learned modifying Liaoning to provide superior vessel

After completing its plan, China might substantially boost its means of deterrence in the region. But globally, the Chinese fleet will struggle to keep pace.

Like the Liaoning, China’s carriers will be conventionally powered with a standard displacement of 50,000 tonnes and use a relatively outdated launch method, a “ski-jump” take-off. These ships are unlikely to rival the United States’ 11 nuclear-powered carriers, including 10 Nimitz-class ships, all of which have a displacement of more than 100,000 tonnes. A Chinese carrier group, including all of its personnel, would take more than a decade to build, assemble, train and make combat ready.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz docks in Busan, South Korea. Photo: EPA

Besides more advanced hardware, the US navy can far outperform China’s in many areas, with its solid experience in real-world combat and its logistics support. By comparison, Chinese fleets have only just begun their maiden voyages.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s