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International relations

China's aircraft carrier is a tool of gunboat diplomacy

The Liaoning bears watching, but is not a Pacific game changer -- yet

TOKYO -- China has been flexing its naval muscle recently, sending its sole aircraft carrier on a long training mission in Asia's choppy waters.

The Liaoning entered the western Pacific via the East China Sea for the first time at the end of last year. The aircraft carrier then changed course, sailing off the east coast of Taiwan and entering the South China Sea, where it conducted takeoff and landing drills.

The carrier's tour is a reminder to the international community of China's rapid military rise in recent years, but the vessel's capabilities should neither be overestimated nor underestimated. 

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, stressed the importance of assessing adversaries' military technologies. That is still an essential part of statecraft.

Not ready for fighting

There are two main reasons why the Liaoning's combat capabilities should not be rated too highly. First, the Liaoning still cannot play all the roles of an aircraft carrier. The ship, which entered into service in 2012, is not equipped with catapults -- the slingshot-like devices that launch aircraft from a short flight deck. This forces its planes to make themselves as light as possible at takeoff, limiting the number of missiles they can carry and putting them at a serious disadvantage in a dogfight.

Second, the Liaoning does not have a full complement of escort vessels. Aircraft carriers do not operate alone. Rather they are the heart of a carrier battle group, which includes escort ships. Although the Liaoning was accompanied by other ships, such as guided missile destroyers, during its recent Western Pacific tour, its submarines, another essential component in the battle group, are vastly inferior to their U.S. and Japanese rivals.

Submarines are particularly important escort vessels. They range far ahead of the others in the group, keeping a lookout for enemy subs. Despite improvements in recent years, it is unclear whether Chinese subs would be able to protect an aircraft carrier during combat.

There are historical parallels between China today and China in the late 19th century. During the late Qing dynasty, the country had two modern battleships, the Dingyuan and the Zhenyuan, which were built in Germany. It used these ships as part of its "gunboat diplomacy" against Japan and other neighboring countries. But during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Dingyuan sank. The Zhenyuan ran aground and was captured by the Japanese.

The two ships were meant to showcase China's strength, but ironically became a symbol of its decline. The last imperial dynasty gradually lost public support and was overthrown in 1912.

China is using the Liaoning in a contemporary version of gunboat diplomacy. But should the Liaoning be sunk or put out of commission by an adversary, it might cause Chinese to question the wisdom of their rulers. The carrier is thus a double-edged sword for the Communist Party. The Chinese military will probably try to keep its prized ship out of actual combat, at least for the time being.

Arresting development

At the same time, Japan and other countries should not underestimate the Liaoning's significance. It is essentially an experimental vessel, one that is helping China make steady progress toward becoming a full-fledged naval power with operational aircraft carriers.

The Chinese military has already obtained an arresting wire system, the other key aircraft carrier-related technology, along with a catapult. An arresting wire allows carrier-based jets land safely on a short flight deck. The wire are stretched across the deck. Jets use arrester hooks to snag the wire as they land, pulling the aircraft to a screeching halt. Japan has no arresting wire system for its own ships.

Most countries with aircraft carriers are reluctant to transfer arresting wire technology to others. In fact, Russia has refused to supply the technology to China. 

But China found an unlikely ally in Brazil, which had purchased an old French carrier and re-christened it. The Sao Paulo is Brazil's only aircraft carrier. China apparently obtained arresting wire technology from Brazil in return for economic assistance and other favors.

"Military cooperation between China and Brazil became clear after Brazilian military officials were seen at the Chinese military's ceremonies and other events related to the Liaoning," according to a Japanese security source.

China purchased the Varyag, a partially built Soviet-era aircraft carrier, from Ukraine. At the time, it did not have the ability to build such ships on its own. The Varyag was refurbished in northern port of Dalian and rechristened the Liaoning. China commissioned the carrier in 2012.

China is now building two homegrown aircraft carriers. Based on technology and data obtained through the operation of the Liaoning, China will make the new carriers more combat-ready. If the Chinese navy continues to build carriers at the current pace, it could have five domestically made vessels matching their U.S. rivals in terms of size, within the next 15 years or so.

The Japanese government's budget for the next fiscal year starting in April includes a record-high defense outlay of 5.125 trillion yen ($45.6 billion). Some critics in Japan worry that defense spending may spiral out of control, but they seem to have fallen into the trap of mirror imaging. They downplay the threat from China, a country that is increasing its military spending at a red-hot pace under the Communist Party's one-party rule.

China's military power can be thought of as a glass half empty or half full. Japan should not feel obligated to curry favor with China based on false impressions of its military might. But it would be equally reckless to be complacent about its future capabilities. Its response to the Liaoning will offer a good test case for Japan's overall stance toward China.

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