US responds to Chinese aircraft carrier with pointed question

ABC features the Obama administration response as if – well, as if it deserves featuring:

As China’s first aircraft carrier takes to the open seas today for its inaugural sea trials, the U.S. government directed a pointed question at the Chinese military: Why would you need a warship like that?

“We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters today. “We have had concerns for some time and we’ve been quite open with them with regard to the lack of transparency from China regarding its power projection and its lack of access and denial of capabilities.” …

“We are prepared to be extremely transparent with regard to U.S. military positions and equipment, and we’d like to have a reciprocal relationship with China, and that’s what our presidents have said we ought to aspire to,” Nuland said. “Transparency in itself is a confidence builder between nations.”

That’ll fix their wagon, over there in Beijing.  Of course, the hazard of demanding an answer to a question is that you may get one.  The Channel News Asia website today quotes a piece from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, the state-run military news outlet, in which the author says the carrier should be used to “handle territorial disputes”:

“Why did we build it if we don’t have the courage and willingness to use the aircraft carrier to handle territorial disputes?” he asked in the article.

“It is reasonable to use the aircraft carrier or other warships to handle disputes if there is any need.

“The reason why we built a carrier is to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests more efficiently. We will be more confident and have more determination to defend our territorial integrity after we have carriers.”

A pointed question for the US administration would be: What did they think China’s purpose was in launching an aircraft carrier?  Does it really require explanation?  Why do nations usually put aircraft carriers in service?  (China didn’t actually build this one; the Russians did.  China finished it and fitted it out with combat systems.)

Another pointed question would be:  What obligation could China possibly have to account to the US for why she has put a carrier in her fleet?  China’s not an ally and is bound by no treaty requirement to explain the introduction of new aircraft carriers.  Why ask a question that can’t put China on the spot and only invites a destabilizing answer?

The PLA Daily piece is being linked fervently all over Asia.  In the wake of multiple warnings from Beijing to the rival maritime claimants in the South China Sea (most recent here), the PLA Daily statement about the purpose of the aircraft carrier looks pretty, well, pointed.

The new carrier, which according to some reports will be named Shi Lang, has just begun sea trials.  It still needs to conduct operational testing of all kinds, and integrate its airwing, before it is ready for combat deployments.  China officially debuted the J-15 strike-fighter that will form the core of the airwing earlier this year; the first photos of the prototype emerged in 2009-10, so it’s a new aircraft for the Chinese military and is still being shaken out itself.  The J-15 is based on the Russian Su-33, the follow-on to the Su-27 designed for the Admiral Kuznetsov-class ski-jump aircraft carrier.  (Russia has Admiral Kuznetsov in service; China’s new carrier is the ex-Varyag, the other unit of the class.)

A full combat complement for the airwing will probably be three squadrons of J-15s, or about 33 aircraft, plus support helicopters.  China is reportedly developing a fixed-wing air control and early warning (AEW) aircraft, to fill the role of the US E-2C Hawkeye, and if the ex-Varyag were to carry such an aircraft, that would mean fewer J-15s, as there is a capacity limit for airwing parking.  Integration of a fixed-wing, carrier-based AEW airframe may be delayed to the inauguration of the Chinese-designed, indigenously built aircraft carrier.

What these various details mean is that China will not be deploying a combat-ready aircraft carrier tomorrow.  Although the Chinese have sped up their typical timeline for operationalizing new capabilities, I would guess the ex-Varyag won’t be in combat service for at least another 15-18 months, and its capabilities will be limited.

That said, the “problem-set” for operationalizing ex-Varyag is of a different scope from that of the path to combat readiness for a US carrier.  The ex-Varyag will never have the capabilities of its US counterparts; its size and other limitations prevent that.  But it doesn’t have to have those capabilities to be a game-changer in Southeast Asia.  Much of what a US carrier totes with it everywhere – making it the famous “four and a half acres of sovereign US territory” – China can provide separately to the maritime battlespace from shore.  Distances are short in the South China Sea, and the Chinese build-up there huge.  China doesn’t need this carrier to attack and subjugate Taiwan, and couldn’t use it to project power at great distances – but it’s the ideal platform to “handle territorial disputes” with the Philippines or Vietnam.

It turns out there are stupid questions.  The Obama administration just asked one.  The good news is that there may be at least a reason, if not an excuse, for the apparent confusion.  The Chinese launched two aircraft carriers this week:  the other one is a luxury hotel in Tianjin, on the Yellow Sea coast in northern China.  The former-Soviet carrier Kiev, which China bought in 1996 to use as a recreational facility, has undergone a multi-million-dollar transformation into a luxury destination for the exotic-travel connoisseur.  There are reportedly five presidential suites, along with cheaper accommodations.  Room rates haven’t been published yet, but you can tour the Binhai Military Theme Park for a ticket cost of 110 yuan, or about $17 US.

China's other aircraft carrier; photo Xinhuanet

For naval/carrier buffs, excellent pictorial history of ex-Varyag here.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.