China's Main Mission: South China Sea, Not Syria

Don't assume that an increasingly capable China is poised to conduct American-style naval air operations over Syria just yet...

With major real news and hype over the past few days about Chinese deck aviation development, it’s time to separate fact from fiction. Doing so can move China’s current and future carriers from preconceived places in foreign minds to their actual place in the world’s fastest-growing major navy.

Not So Fast!

A controversial Israeli website just doubled down on a dubious claim, leading with an “exclusive” graphic-splashed sea story on 2 October: “Chinese warplanes to join Russian air strikes in Syria.” “DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report that China sent word to Moscow Friday, Oct. 2, that J-15 fighter bombers would shortly join the Russian air campaign,” the website claimed, without furnishing evidence. “The J-15 warplanes will take off from the Chinese Liaoning-CV-16 aircraft carrier, which reached Syrian shores on Sept. 26 (as DEBKAfile exclusively reported at the time). This will be a landmark event for Beijing: its first military operation in the Middle East as well the carrier’s first taste of action in conditions of real combat.” Perhaps grasping for politically-resonant (Putin-relevant) news, Pravda and other outlets have recirculated some of this misinformed content. Amazingly, however, no serious English-language sources have directly debunked this inaccurate reporting.

Never mind that there are no credible reports of Liaoning entering the region, and no images available of it in Syrian ports. Or that the U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) do not judge the Ukrainian-derived carrier or its air wing ready for any such actions. (Liaoningremains several years from becoming fully operational, and even then will offer relatively limited combat capability”). Or that, for all its growing pushiness and bullying behavior in the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas), China remains relatively cautious about the employment of military power overseas. Or that, for both these reasons, Beijing would be taking a tremendous risk in the eyes of the world. Or that China has a history of abstaining from controversial actions when Russia is clearly willing to act and take the heat. Or that, even if China were willing and able to conduct airstrikes with Liaoning, the carrier’s ski-jump configuration and the J-15’s apparently limited engine thrust would severely limit the weapons it could actually carry.

Already, there has been an indirect Chinese denial of sorts. Senior Captain Zhang Junshe—former deputy director of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s strategic think tank and an influential, well-informed member of PLAN policy circles—has been quoted as stating “that reports of the Liaoning heading to the Mediterranean are ‘purely rumors.’”

Here’s what’s going on: following years of American deck aviation operations, particularly in the “unipolar moment” of the last two decades when they could execute overland airstrikes at will from offshore sanctuaries, aircraft carriers have come to symbolize the great power gold standard in strategic control, influence, and reach abroad. Beijing’s military power and geopolitical influence has grown to such an extent that many in China and around the world find it difficult to see how it can develop much further without embracing the American approach. Some overeager observers are thus prematurely imagining new milestones in Chinese power projection via carrier. But to really understand the sea change underway in China’s maritime transformation, we need to “seek truth from facts” and examine what China is actually doing to build deck aviation capability and how it compares to its larger maritime efforts.

The Real Deal

Beijing’s actual carrier news this week is pretty big too. Photos emerged suggesting that China is almost certainly building its first indigenous carrier at Dalian Shipyard. As early as 27 February 2015, keel assembly began in a dry dock previously used for Liaoning’s refitting; by 10 March initial hull construction emerged. On 22 September, new imagery revealed lower hull assembly similar to that the Kuznetsov-class carrier that would become Liaoning underwent at Ukraine’s Nikolayev Shipyard in the mid-1980s.

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