Sultan M Hali
According to Chinese media, China is close to completing its second aircraft carrier, which will begin service by 2020, is likely to be named Shandong, after a Chinese port city. China Central Television (CCTV) reported that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s Type 001A class aircraft carrier’s scaffold has been removed and red undercoat has been painted below the ship’s waterline in Dalian, northeastern Liaoning Province, and that a launching ceremony will soon be held. Chinese experts opine that unlike the Liaoning (Type 001), China’s first aircraft carrier, a refitted ship built by Ukraine (under the former Soviet Union), the 001A is indigenously built by China and its design, combat capability and technology will be much more advanced.
Chinese naval experts believe that a key difference between the two is that the design will be more ‘humanized,’ which means all personnel on the carrier will enjoy a more comfortable and modern environment. Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, while commenting on the development and stressing on the status, compared it to a house whose paint job has been completed but requires decorating, which, in military terms, is called the ‘outfitting stage. It means all weapons and equipment, including the radar system, air defence system and communications system will be outfitted on the carrier. After this, the carrier and aircraft on it will be tested, and then the carrier will be ready to serve. In the news report on the subject by People’s Daily of China, “Construction of the aircraft carrier is on schedule. Most of its construction and design work has been completed. Its hull has already been assembled at the shipyard.
The ship will soon be equipped with radar and other facilities,” said Chinese defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian in October 2016, in response to media inquiries on reported aircraft carrier images circulating online. On December 31, 2015 the Chinese defence ministry formally announced the construction of the 001A, and another spokesperson Yang Yujun said, “This carrier, with a displacement of 50,000 tons, will be the base for J-15 fighters and other types of aircraft.”
The design and construction of the second aircraft carrier is based on experience, research and training from the first carrier, the Liaoning, Yang added. Based on information released by the Chinese defence ministry, 001A’s aircraft will still use the ski-jump method of taking off from a ski ramp on the front of the carrier just like its “sister,” the Liaoning, rather than more advanced catapult technology used by US aircraft carriers. China is looking into catapult technology, Li said, and the technology will likely be adopted on the 002, China’s third aircraft carrier, which is being built in Shanghai.
“In other words, 002 is entirely different from the Liaoning (001) and 001A, and it will look like US aircraft carrier rather than a Russian one,” Li said. Most advanced aircraft carriers use the Electromagnetic Catapult System, or Electromagnetic launcher (EML), to launch carrier-based jets, but China is still testing steam catapults, Li said. “The main difference is that EMLs are more flexible and the system’s speed can be controlled, so it can launch aircraft of different sizes.”
Yin said “in order to protect China’s territories and overseas interests, China needs two carrier strike groups in the West Pacific Ocean and two in the Indian Ocean. So we need at least five to six aircraft carriers.” “It will be used to tackle the complicated situations in the South China Sea,” said Chinese media. China apparently does not have either hegemonic designs or is interested in imperialism since it suffered the ignominy of being occupied by various imperialist powers till it achieved independence in 1949.
Unfortunately, former imperialist powers view China through their own ethnocentric prism and misinterpret its rapid economic progress with suspicion that it might be flexing its muscles to subjugate other nations like they did in the past.
South China Sea (SCS) is China’s domain not only because historically China controlled it before the advent of imperialist power but also because China has developed a network of artificially built islands in the region to assist navigation and making the sea lanes of communication more secure and safe.
The SCS dispute involves island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The disagreement revolves around the Spratly and the Paracel islands as well as maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin and elsewhere. There is a further dispute in the waters near the Natuna Islands close to Indonesia. The interests of different nations include acquiring fishing areas around the two archipelagos; the potential exploitation of expected crude oil and natural gas under the waters of various parts of the SCS; and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.
Stung by Chinese economic progress, and the fear that China may overtake it as the world’s largest economy, USA has propped some of China’s neighbours to challenge China for the possession of some of the islands. China has endeavoured to resolve the issue through peaceful bilateral negotiations but the US goads some of the littoral states of SCS to aggressive posture, while the US itself maintains an unnecessary naval presence in the waters. In 2016, in an illegal and one sided hearing by the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) the Philippines, then a US ally, obtained a ruling that China’s claims over the islands in the SCS are illegal. China rejected the ruling on technical grounds that the ICA was not authorized to find a ruling in the issue unilaterally since China had not applied for arbitration and the ICA; it takes two to tango!
With the advent of Trump administration, a more aggressive US stance is being observed, where Trump has promised to put a stop to China’s so called “aggressive, unlawful behavior.” It would be prudent for the Philippines and other neighbours of China to resolve the issue bilaterally with China amicably rather than being misled by countries with vested interests, who would like to see the region and China stuck in the quagmire of conflict.
Under the circumstances, China is constrained to build its navy which has undergone rapid modernization in the last few years with particular emphasis on fielding submarines. Unlike the US Navy, which maintains nineteen aircraft carriers and uses them for power projection around the globe, the much smaller Chinese aircraft carriers are much smaller, built with the idea of coastal defence, not seaborne power projection. They are custom made for the SCS. As China gains more experience in designing and constructing aircraft carriers indigenously, its focus however would remain on defence rather than offense.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.