How China Plans to Win a War Against the Navy: Sink Its Aircraft Carriers
After the missile tests, the carrier USS Nimitz left the Persian Gulf region and raced back to the western Pacific. This was an even more powerful carrier battle group, consisting of the Aegis cruiser Port Royal, guided missile destroyers Oldendorf and Callaghan (which would later be transferred to the Taiwanese Navy), guided missile frigate USS Ford, and nuclear attack submarine USS Portsmouth. Nimitz and its escorts took up station in the Philippine Sea, ready to assist Independence. Contrary to popular belief, neither carrier actually entered the Taiwan Strait.
The People’s Liberation Army, unable to do anything about the American aircraft carriers, was utterly humiliated. China, which was just beginning to show the consequences of rapid economic expansion, still did not have a military capable of posing a credible threat to American ships just a short distance from of its coastline.
While we might never know the discussions that later took place, we know what has happened since. Just two years later a Chinese businessman purchased the hulk of the unfinished Russian aircraft carrier Riga, with the stated intention of turning it into a resort and casino. We know this ship today as China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, after it was transferred to the PLA Navy and underwent a fifteen-year refurbishment. At least one other carrier is under construction, and the ultimate goal may be as many as five Chinese carriers.
At the same time, the Second Artillery Corps leveraged its expertise in long-range rockets to create the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile. The DF-21 has obvious applications against large capital ships, such as aircraft carriers, and in a future crisis could force the U.S. Navy to operate eight to nine hundred miles off Taiwan and the rest of the so-called “First Island Chain.”
The Third Taiwan Crisis was a brutal lesson for a China that had long prepared to fight wars inside of its own borders. Still, the PLA Navy deserves credit for learning from the incident and now, twenty-two years later, it is quite possible that China could seriously damage or even sink an American carrier. Also unlike the United States, China is in the unique position of both seeing the value of carriers and building its own fleet while at the same time devoting a lot of time and resources to the subject of sinking them. The United States may soon find itself in the same position.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This appeared last year.