Flattop Faceoff: China's Pride vs. America's Arrogance
In Defense Report, Stewart Webb writes,
“Anonymous sources within the U.S. Navy’s senior command have revealed that the U.S. is not concerned over any immediate threat from the introduction of China’s latest aircraft carrier in the Pacific, the Liaoning.”
China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a great source of national pride. It is also a grim symbol of the arrogance of an American defense establishment that largely dismisses Beijing’s under-sized training carrier as an antiquated bucket of rusty Soviet bolts.
The prevailing Pentagon opinion is not wrong, at least when viewed through the keyhole of tactics and short-term thinking. The Liaoning is indeed a refurbished Soviet carrier originally launched in 1988 that the Chinese picked up for a rusting song from Ukraine in 1998.
The Liaoning is also a bit undersized. Its deck is just shy of 100 feet shorter than an American supercarrier like the Nimitz.
On top of that, the Liaoning has little in the way of advanced electronics or weaponry, so that taken as a whole it is clear that the Liaoning poses no direct competition to any American aircraft carrier strike groups patrolling in the East or South China Seas. Nor does the Liaoning pose a viable threat to any American forward bases in the region—tactical or otherwise.
These limitations of the Liaoning notwithstanding, there is also this stark reality: In an era of a rapidly shrinking American fleet, the Liaoning and its picket ships and air wing pose a growing threat to many of China’s neighbors in the South China Sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
Both of these countries are currently involved in contentious maritime disputes with China over contested land features. Both of these countries have also had territory and natural resources stripped from them at the point of a naval artillery gun.
For example, Beijing’s revanchist navy took the Paracel Islands from Vietnam decades ago in a fiery battle based on an ancient historical claim unrecognized by international law. It now periodically sends huge drilling rigs backed by military forces into disputed areas of Vietnam’s two hundred nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone base—even as it engages in an almost constant bullying of Vietnamese fisherman, who have been driven further and further offshore.
In a similarly belligerent fashion, and with its growing naval forces and paramilitary China Marine Surveillance ships as the tip of its spear, Beijing has also taken land features from both the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands—with full American acquiescence. These land features, in turn, have been transformed into “unsinkable aircraft carriers” replete with 10,000 foot runways, missile-guidance capabilities and sophisticated sonar and avionics with which to track enemy shipping and aircraft—forcing an “under-shipped” United States to futilely send “freedom of navigation” patrols into the area.
As to where the Liaoning fits into Beijing’s overall pattern of revanchist aggression, Heritage Foundation scholar Dean Cheng has succinctly captured the essence of a problem that the Pentagon has woefully failed to acknowledge:
“When you look at the South China Sea and when you look at where various countries have their airfields and their air forces, what you can very quickly see is that much of the South China Sea is very far from land. So, as a result, if you put even a small aircraft carrier there, what you can create is something like an air defense bubble; and one of the lessons the Chinese have taken away from the wars of the past twenty years – Desert Shield, Desert Storm, the Balkans, Afghanistan – is that air superiority is essential to winning modern wars.
“You may not win with air superiority, but you will certainly lose without it; and so the ability to deploy an aircraft carrier, even if it is just to keep three or four modern aircraft overhead, is a huge advantage when everybody else in the area really can’t put any aircraft overhead for any sustained period of time.”
As for the Liaoning’s broader strategic value, China looks to be playing the kind of long game that American leaders simply don’t have in their intellectual and strategic wheelhouse. The White House and Congress are all about today and tomorrow. China’s authoritarian junta is all about the twenty-first century. And the Pentagon doesn’t really seem to grasp the fact that a threat to the Philippines or Vietnam from the Liaoning also poses a threat to the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific.
From this perspective, the Liaoning should not simply be dismissed as a “training carrier.” Rather, it should be seen as the first step in China’s fielding of a fleet of flattops that will pose an ever-increasing threat from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the waters of the Pacific out to the Second Island Chain and beyond to the Hawaii.