What Is China Thinking with Its Newest Plane Design?

Officials of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) unveil the newly-made nose of amphibious aircraft AG600, during a ceremony at a factory in Chengdu, Sichuan province

China’s latest large aircraft AG600 might be an ugly duckling, but the amphibious plane could turn out to be a shrewd investment.

Still, AG-600 may yet retain a few key advantages. For example, it is said that it can heft 2.4 tons more weight than Japan’s amphibious aircraft thanks to its larger size. Its electronics are said to be superior not surprisingly given it is much newer, but it is additionally asserted that AG-600 can be reconfigured to handle more varied missions. To that point, a rather interesting statement is made in the Modern Ships article: “An amphibious aircraft that can undertake the anti-submarine mission is not necessarily well suited for search and rescue or fire-fighting missions and vice versa.” In the end, even the very skeptical Naval & Merchant Ships article concludes that AG-600 will be “extremely useful for rights protection and search and rescue in the South China Sea” [非常有利于南海威权, 救援]. Moreover, the point is made that AG-600 is likely more affordable than the Japanese amphibious aircraft. Indeed, the Aerospace Knowledge article suggests that Malaysia and Indonesia and other such archipelagic states are ideal export markets for this unusual plane.

One should not exclude strategic implications of the development of China’s new, large seaplane. Intelligence and surveillance are not minor issues in modern warfare and, as has been widely observed, “presence” itself has major implications in maritime sovereignty disputes. The Modern Ships article does state explicitly in its conclusion that AG-600 “in times of military conflict can undergo a large-scale refit for combat” [在战事即可进行大规模的战争改装].

And yet it would be wrong to view AG-600 mainly as part of a threatening Chinese maritime posture. Inexpensive and secure transport networks are at the heart of Beijing’s vision for the “Maritime Silk Road” initiative and this is the most compelling explanation for the AG-600 program. One need not countenance China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea to nevertheless agree that the whole region can benefit from an improved maritime search and rescue posture, not to mention safe and efficient transport between far-flung littoral destinations.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport RI. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: Reuters