Key Point: Limiting China now may prevent this.
In his reaction to the December 6 Chinese Global Times article quoting experts saying China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may require five or six aircraft carriers, David Axe wrote an article asking, “Could Beijing really pull it off?” The short answer is that Beijing is just getting started.
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) one of the most important missions for state media like the Global Times is to ensure that the Chinese people never doubt the increasing power of CCP’s dictatorship and that all others come to accept the inevitability of China’s “benevolent” global leadership. The Global Times and many other outlets daily promote scores of articles touting elements of Chinese power ranging from specific new weapons to China’s grand strategies. From now on, a major goal of China’s state media and its strategic information operations will be acclimating the world to a globally-projected People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
One key characteristic of such articles is that they usually do not convey new information, but can track with what is already reported or mentioned in publicly available information. For example, on December 31, 2008, Kenji Minemura of the Asahi Shimbun, reporting from Beijing and citing “military and shipbuilding sources,” wrote that China would build two “domestically produced” aircraft carriers in addition to the Varyag/Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine. Then on February 13, 2009, he reported China would build two nuclear-powered carriers “in 2020 or later.” So a decade ago Chinese “military and shipbuilding sources” mooted the goal of five carriers, but why should this be viewed as China’s final goal?
Signs abound that China is building or seeking the infrastructure necessary for global maritime projection. China has assembled design teams for non-nuclear (CV) and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVN) and has shipyards in Dalian and Shanghai now producing aircraft carriers. Multiple indications from Chinese sources indicate that after building two 65,000 ton CVs, the Shanghai yard will then start making larger CVNs for generations to come. Dalian could continue to build flattop carriers, or transition to landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, but these might also follow the production of up to eight Type 071 landing platform dock amphibious assault ships. By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, the PLA could have over ten CVs and CVNs. In addition, Chinese sources indicate that the PLA Marines will be expanded to a force of 100,000, suggesting an eventual “Gator” navy of thirty to forty large amphibious projection ships.
The bases to support such a fleet is also discernible. In April 2013, the PLA revealed a newly-built naval base for its first aircraft carrier Liaoning in Qingdao, and before that, a new naval base in Yalong Bay on Hainan Island had been completed. Both today could likely accommodate four aircraft carriers. Should the PLA ever succeed in conquering democratic Taiwan, it is conceivable that Taiwan’s naval bases and ports, some newly built, could eventually accommodate at least six to eight nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. From Hainan and Taiwan bases, PLAN nuclear-powered carrier battle groups, including nuclear powered supply ships, could sortie very quickly to isolate Northeast Asia, isolate U.S. Navy forces in Guam and Hawaii, or project power to assert China’s interests in the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Africa, and in the Atlantic Ocean.
A global network of military access arrangements and bases is perhaps the second most important secondary product of China’s three to ten trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Road infrastructure building initiatives; additional to the “purchase” of global governing political elites. PLA military network building has long complemented China’s economic and political power projection. Beijing’s economic and political muscle includes the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the pan-African China Africa Defense and Security Forum, and the clear intention to build a similar “forum” covering Latin America and the Caribbean. With the first real PLA foreign base or “logistical facility” in Djibouti, we can monitor Chinese interest in establishing similar military access in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Maldives, Seychelles, Vanuatu, Fiji, Sao Tome and Principe, Nigeria, Zambia, and Venezuela. If the PLAN goes unchecked, it is reasonable to expect that around 2049, it could be supporting a presence in the Mediterranean, Atlantic Ocean, and the Arctic.
It is important to consider that this is just the tip-of-the-spear of the maritime dimension of China’s global projection of the PLA. There will also be hundreds of C-17 size 60-ton capacity Xian Aircraft Corporation Y-20 transports. Moreover, the help of Ukraine, Xian may also be producing one hundred ton capacity transports similar to the Antonov An-124. The PLA Airborne Corps is now introducing a second generation of light airborne armor and artillery, additional to new medium-weight wheeled armor units in the PLA Ground Forces, already available for airborne projection. There is also the PLA’s space power projection, with the PLA now racing the United States to the Moon where it will build dual-use bases for civil and military use to support military control of the Earth-Moon System.
Before one blanches at the many years of near trillion-dollar a year defense budgets necessary just to ramp up to the level needed to deter a globally-projected PLA, it is useful to consider the alternatives. By the time China has two carriers, a North Korean nuclear crisis could divert U.S. attention to the point of tempting China to initiate its long-planned invasion of Taiwan. In addition to the potential U.S. lives lost in this war, the twenty-one million people of Taiwan could suffer the humanitarian catastrophe of Xinjiang-like concentration camps to eradicate their democratic culture. This could then set a pattern for the coming century, as the United States and the democracies face repeated harsh choices of either opposing or accepting China’s all around aggression from the seas and space, to its imposition of new digital dictatorships.
But this not need not come to pass. The United States and the democracies can avoid spending decades relearning lessons from the last Cold War. It is possible now to start developing policies toward China based on the premise that the CCP constitutes an existential threat to the democracies. Limiting China’s broad access to economic and technical innovation centers in the democracies can be helped with a new global organization similar to the Committee on Export Controls (COCOM). For its part in the near-term, America can beat China to the Moon, and be the first to occupy strategic areas on its poles. Also, smart investments in defense systems with long-term impact can be made, such as considering a new class of 65,000 ton Landing helicopter dock ships armed with scores of vertical launchers for intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles. Instead of retiring the U.S. Air Force’s B-1 bombers, repurpose them as supersonic maritime control strike platforms, maybe even giving them to the U.S. Navy.
Finally, after withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, Washington should not limit itself to only investing heavily in its own short, medium, and intermediate-range missiles. America also should change longstanding policies limiting the missile arsenals of its allies, and then work with them to build new long-range deterrent capabilities. For them, missiles are a far less costly military investment, and they have a greater prospect for deterring the Chinese should America have to move its forces to counter Chinese aggression. Furthermore, only when the United States and its allies are so armed might China change its decades-long refusal to join arms control agreements which actually limit its missile forces.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and the author of Chinese Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach (Stanford University Press, 2010). This piece was originally featured in December 2018 and is being republished due to reader's interest.