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‘Shi Lang’ – a new page opens

October 4, 2011

Robert Whiston FRSA   Sept 29th 2011

China’s new aircraft carrier; a new future or a new threat ? 

China’s new 60,000 ton aircraft carrier is one of the worst kept naval secrets. Believed to be christened the Shi Lang she has returned to her home port of Dalian after reportedly ‘successful’ sea trials (Aug 2011)

The transformation of an apparently introverted China now positively contemplating the projecting of its power –not to mention political will – around the Pacific region is unsettling to its neighbours.

Right: the ‘Shi Lang’

At another level it is comparable to the destabilising effect China’s phenomenal economic expansion has had at the expense of formerly affluent Western economies.

The two challenges this development poses, 1/. militarily and 2/ politically, will be not only be addressed by others but China knows that they will be countered in part if not in whole. The openness of Western of economies has made all things possible for China. Without open ‘markets’ to sell into, China risks returning to an introspective economy with a far lower world status.

Quantifying those challenges requires a separate analysis of both the military and political implications.

Aircraft carriers have become the prime vehicles par excellence of foreign diplomacy on the geo-political stage. The only incongruity is that as a fledgling super power it has takenChina so long to match its economic prowess with a comparable and offensive military capability.

Left: the ‘Shi Lang’ viewed from the starboard bow. Note new radar arrays and deck fittings

Diplomatically, the consistent build-up by Chinais unlikely to captivate the affections of China’s neighbours – but since 1949 (HMS Amethyst, 1949 etc) when did Peking ever care about what its neighbours thought ? It has always shown itself to be so single-minded as to be dubbed ‘the-bully-on-the-block.’

Part 1

The Military Dimension

Aircraft carriers are not vehicles for defensive postures. They are designed for offensive operations, long range interdiction, crippling strikes upon enemy forces and the denial of military assets.

A key decision by Russia usefully contrasts China’s thinking for the decades ahead. Russia has changed its military strategy and pays more attention to nuclear submarines. [1] Effectively, it has abandoned the aircraft carrier as an instrument of war, even though it has a longer sea border than China.

Perhaps Russia’s military thinking hypothesised that any conflict it engaged in with the West would not only bring it into conflict with enemy aircraft carriers but enemy land based aircraft. The only regions where this would probably not occur would be South America and parts of Africa. However, to get to those regions a Russian fleet would have to transit through dangerous waters to and from its home base.

The effect of this new development has been to excite the Chinese public’s imaginations, prompt a re-assessment by foreign governments and even trigger a rethink in carrier design (which, it has to be admitted, has been very conservative, and one-dimensional for the last 40 years).

What look like outrageously futuristic designs (see below) are appearing on a variety of internet sites.

The hardware

China’s new aircraft carrier, the ‘Shi Lang’ started life as the 60,000 ton Russian aircraft carrier Varyag. At 60,000 tons Shi Lang’ is in some ways comparable to carriers such as the recently retired USS Kitty Hawk. However, the Russian design remit was always radically different to how the West intended to use its carrier task forces.

Many commentaries have scoffed at China’s decision and have attempted to downplay the ship, pointing to her chequered history and pedigree. But this detractration is to miss the point. China bought the Varyag without engines, armaments, radar systems etc etc. She was literally a floating hull with a rusting deck and China has no carrier experience. It makes sense to buy one from a country which has some experience in that branch of ship technology.

Left: Varyagat the time of her auction.

The measure of the situation is best gained when all the absent fighting equipment is fitted. Will China build her own engines – and how reliable will they be – or buy them in ?

Missiles and aircraft suitable for a carrier already exist or are on order. France has previously supplied radar systems and we must assume China will obtain phased arrays (required for multiple sea and air targets) on the open market.

Varyag was an Admiral Kuznetsov class multi-role aircraft carrier belonging to the Soviet Union. She was laid down in Dec 1985 and launched in Dec 1988; however she was never fully completed. [2] Some of her original specifications are listed in the Table below:

The Varyag was purchased in April 1998 by the Chinese ‘Chong Lot Travel Agency’ for US$ 20 million at auction.

The Chong Lot Travel Agency’ is a company widely believed to be a front for Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Chong Lot stated that the ship would become a floating entertainment centre and casino in Macau, and under the sale conditions thatshe would never be refitted for combat. The tow from the Ukraine to Dalian, China, began in 2000 but was delayed by the Turkish authorities for over 16 months. Varyag finally reached China in March 2002. [3] Dalian is better known in the West as ‘Port Arthur.’

The Admiral Kuznetsov is the sister ship of the Varyag. She, in contrast to the Varyag, has been on continuous duty since her launch in 1985 (becoming fully operational in 1995).

Initially Western analysts anticipated that the Admiral Kuznetsov would have a Combined Nuclear And Steam (CONAS) propulsion plant similar to the Kirov class missile battlecruisers (24,300 tons, 32 kts). However, Admiral Kuznetsov as completed was conventionally powered by eight oil-fired boilers and four steam turbines, each producing 50,000 hp (37 MW), driving four shafts with fixed-pitch propellers. Her maximum speed is 29 knots (54 km/h), and her rangeat maximum speed is 3,800 miles (6,100 km). At 18 knots (33 km/h), her maximum range is 8,500 miles (13,700 km).

Confusingly the Admiral Kuznetsov has been give n a series of names including “Riga”, “Leonid Brezhnev”, and “Tbilisi. Another Russian aircraft carrier the Kiev was sold in 1996 to a Chinese leisure company, and has been part of Binhai Aircraft Park, a military theme park in Tianjin since May 2004. [4]

There can be little doubt that China’s naval architects and engineers has learnt a great deal from the hulls of other carriers it has purchased in the past 20 years, e.g. the  Minsk.

Russia’s ‘aviation cruisers’

Russia positioned its aircraft carriers’ role to be significantly different to the mode adopted by the West. The term used by Russian naval architects to describe their new genre of Russian warship was “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser.” The intention was to support and defend strategic missile-carrying submarines, surface ships, and maritime missile-carrying aircraft of the Russian fleet.

Left: Admiral Gorshkov (Kiev class)

Some ‘aviation cruisers’ such as the Kiev class (pictured left) forsook the bow launch capability to make space for ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missiles. This was intended to by-pass the Treaty banning aircraft carriers from passing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean which adversely affected Russian naval capabilities. The pretence was that they were really ‘heavy crusiers’ that happened to also have the capability of launching aircraft.

Arguably ‘to support and defend strategic missile-carrying submarines’ – of which China now has many – is also the role the Chinese will prefer to employ for their new carrier.

That might require the fitting of missiles on the ski jump bows but early reports indicate that the ski slope at the bow has unobstructed bows (see Admiral Kuznetsov below). If the ‘Shi Lang’ has adopted a deck layout similar to the Admiral Kuznetsov  then it must be to maximise the use of fixed wing aircraft.

Left: the Admiral Kuznetsov

Other carriers linked to China include the former Soviet aviation cruiser Minsk which was towed from a South Korean scrap yard to a Chinese port in 1998, and HMAS Melbourne (RN Majestic class) sold in 1985. 

The Minsk is typically another Soviet carrier that has now ‘somehow’ ended up in Chinese waters. She had operated in the Pacific Fleet but had to be retired as a result of a major accident which could only be repaired at Chernomorski facility, located in the newly-independent Ukraine. In 1995 Minsk was sold to a South Korean businessman, and later resold to “Shemzhen Minsk Aircraft Carrier Industry Company Limited”, a Chinese company. The company went bankrupt in 2006.

HMAS Melbourne (700 ft, 20,000 tons) was decommissioned in June 1982 and sold for scrap metal (in Feb 1985), to a Chinese shipbuilding company. However by Jan 2001 reports began surfacing that she had been used to train Chinese pilots to land on her angled flight deck.

For a comparison with World War II carriers, see Appendix A.

Deceit and subterfuge

The prices paid for these allegedly defunct aircraft carriers appear to fluctuate wildly. The Minsk was eventually sold for US$ 16 million, while the Varyag sold for US$ 20 million. Another source puts the price paid for the Varyagat US$ 200 million.

HMAS Melvourne, launched in 1945, was sold in 1985 to China for only Aus$ 1.4 million. Were these ships being sincerely bought and sold for their scarp value then the Varyag at US$ 20 million being three times the weight of HMAS Melbourne should have sold for less than Aus$ 6 million.

The building costs of modern warships – even state-of-the-art frigates – is today extraordinarily expensive, so the building of an aircraft carrier should be almost prohibitive. The path China has chosen is interesting for the sums involved (HMS Ark Royal at 22,000 tons cost an estimated £333 million in 1985).

In October 2006 the Russian on-line daily newspaper Kommersant revealed that Russia’s state-run weapons exporter ‘Rosoboronexport’ was completing negotiations with China to deliver up to 50 Su-33 fighter aircraft. The purchase price was reportedly US$2.5 billion.

At about the same time China agreed to spend $100 million to buy two Su-33 fighters from Komsomolsk-on-AmurProduction Association for ‘trial and evaluations,’ with delivery expected in 2007-08 (

March 2009 saw a very different picture. The daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that Russia was refusing to sell China Su-33 jets, citing past “piracy of the design” for its SU-27 fighters.

Russia believed its SU-33s were being ordered merely so they could be cloned by the Chinese. This would kill-off any future sales to China, leaving China free to export globally a cheaper version of Russian technology.

Russiais now facing the same problem that bedeviled companies in the West decades ago, the unlicenced reproduction and replica industry in Far Eastern countries, e.g.Taiwan.

Andrei Chang, a China military analyst at KanwayInformationCentersaid:

  • “Chinawill not acknowledge to the Russians thatthese are copies, they say it is an independent domestic production designed solely by themselves.”

China ‘owns’ a Su-33 prototype, which it purchased from the Ukrainian Research Test and Flying Training Center at Nitka. In 2001, a Chinese delegation convinced Ukrainian officials to sell the T10K prototype said Chang. However, the ‘intellectual property rights’ for the aircraft belong to Sukhoi, not to the Ukraine government (

Available aircraft

Communist China has relied onRussiafor much of its armaments since 1949. It has purchased outright war materiel or manufactured items under licence, e.g. land mines, T-34 and T-54 tanks, and AK 47.

During the Korean War the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) ostensibly operated the Soviet-built YAK 9 and the MiG-15 (known as the J-2 in Chinese service). Declassified materiel has since revealed that many J-2 aircraft were actually flown by Russian pilots.

Over the years the trade with China has been very profitable to Russia, especially during the Cold War when opportunities for trading world wide to gain hard currency were limited.

Inevitably China became more sophisticated in its production techniques and more advanced in its home grown technology. The economic bargain China struck with the West in later years has meant it too now has the hard currency to purchase the technology and leap frog ahead.

Espionage has always played a pivotal role in Russia’s scramble to match the West during the Cold War and of the ill-fated Concordski supersonic airliner is a prime example. In the far less public arena of military equipment and technological breakthroughs similar stories are harder to find.

Russia was always anxious to acquire new technology for trifling amounts paid to greedy/disloyal staff working on sensitive projects in government facilities. One suspects thatChina has followed suit with the notorious Harold Holt saga (1967), and John Anthony Walker  (1985), and naturalised Americans Dongfan “Greg” Chung (2009) and Chi Mak (2009) to name but a few. [5]  But Russia could not have been prepared for the degree to which it would be duped by its brother-in-arms’, Comrade China.

Spying is always a two way street as the CIA’s 1968 Report into the potential of China’s ICBM and submarines programme reveals. China’s missile development was a detour prompted by the Sino-Soviet split (1960 – 1989) which cut it off from its normal source of armaments.

At the beginning of China’s aircraft carrier programme (circa 1998) negotiations began with Russia for the purchase of suitable aircraft. Russia operated the Su 33 (NATO code Flanker-D) on its aircraft carriers, but had sold a number of MiG-29K (NATO code Fulcrum-D) to India for their recently acquired former Soviet carrier.

China appears to have purchased a prototype from the Ukraine (from whom it also bought the Varyag) and then cancelled/reduced its order made with the Russians.Russia believes China has since blatantly copied the Russian designed aircraft. Currently a production line is building the Su-33 known as the J-15 to the Chinese.

As mentioned above, previous contract for 200 Soviet-designed Su-27 was cancelled by the Russians when they discovered that China was reverse engineering and building its own aircraft.

China has batted away Russian grumbles and official complaints by claiming the J-15 is a product solely of Chinese technology.

For the Shi Lang, China will most likely employ its new J-15 ‘Flying Shark’ which is a carrier-based heavy fighter-bomber The J-15 has an airframe closely resembling that of the Russian Su-33, but, say the Chinese, it has more advanced and indigenously made avionics.[6]

Left: Su-33 preparing for take-off on Admiral Kuznetsov
Visually, modern Russian and Chinese aircraft such as the J-15 and Su-33 resemble those designed in America- the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle and F-16 Hornet.

As for potential mission applications, the J-15 (i.e., Su-33) is a large aircraft and probably has a normal take-off weight similar to that of theUnited States’ now-retired F-14 Tomcat.

If the J-15’s avionics suite can support a groundattack mission, it will have two primary uses in a future Chinese carrier group, with a third role of providing air cover as necessary during future operations to protect and/or evacuate Chinese citizens threatened by violence overseas.

As currently configured, the J-15 (see below) is described by some military experts as “no great leap forward,’ but is nevertheless triggering concern in the region because it indicates rapid improvements in Chinese naval aviation, and suggests Chinese determination to extend its regional blue water presence. The J-15’s initial role will be linked to, and limited by, its first operational platform: a ‘starter carrier’ to project a bit of power, confers prestige on a rising great power, and master basic procedures.The significance of these aircraft bears directly on China’s deep water and territorial waters ambitions. Sometimes referred to as a ‘blue water’ presence nations with global aspirations, e.g. the US, or regional, e.g. Japan in the 1930s and China today, need to enforce their resolve with a credible intimidatary weapon system.

Future planning for a blue water’ presence requires that land and carrier-based aircraft, together with the ships, will be on stream and in sufficient numbers by a given date. Future planning also dictates that in the next 20 years replacement aircraft and shipping (and not forgetting submarines) will include a generational up-grade, e.g. China’s J-20 stealth fighter (for international stealth fighters comparisons see Appendix B).

The US had the world’s first and only operational stealth fighter in 1981, the Lockheed Martin F-117 (retired in 2008).  It has been playing down the images that appear to show a Chinese working prototype that resembles the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightening II due to come on stream soon and enter service in the next few years.  The F-22 Raptor is a true interceptor/fighter whereas the role filled by the F-117 was skewed to one of ground-attack and tactical bombing.

US-based Defense News carried a report (in 2011) citing an English-language military trade journal that China is developing a short-takeoff, vertical-landing Jump Jet equivalent to the Hawker Harrier.

A version optimised for small aircraft carriers is a logical progression but there is confusion surrounding what is thought to be the designated J-18. Some reports describe it as a variant of the Su-33 or Su-27 but these at 66,000 lbs are more than three times the dead weight of a Harrier, so take-offs look problematical.

However, Richard Fisher, from the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington,D.C., told the publication:

  • ‘. . . given the PLA’s naval power projection ambitions, it is probable there is (a) VSTOL (vertical or short take-off and vertical-landing), or STOVL (short take-off and vertical-landing)  fighter programme.” [7]

Part 2

The Political Dimension

For its large size China has a relatively small coastline, 14,500 kilometers, one certainly much smaller than Russia’s. Russia has a coastline to the west, the north, and the east. China has only one coastline which faces East, stretching from the border with North Korea and Japan in the north, to Vietnam in the south (the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea).

Russia has settled borders and enjoys friendly relations with its neighbours. This is not true of China. North Korea can best be described as violatile and Japan is ever mistrustful of China.

Russia knows where it stands with regards its sea and coastal borders but China appears to exhibit greed in claiming the maritime rights of neighbouring countries. It even has strained relations with North Korea.

Left: Chinese coastline showing the three naval command and control regions.

China has not only diplomatically fallen out with all its immediate neighbours around the South China Sea but in the seas to the north. She appears to be basing her maritime claim to everything on the frontiers as they appertained duing the Imperial era of China. This can only be compared with Israel’s irrational claim to the whole of Palestine and Jordan based on the Bible and the “the word of God.” 

China has spent the past 30 years building up both its surface and submarine fleets learning from the Russian and then designing and building warships for themselves, e.g. Romeo and Kilo class subs.

China began building 84 Romeo class diesel-electric submarines in 1982. In 1995 China’s PLA Navy ordered about 4 Kilo class vessels and in 2002, she signed a US$ 1.5 billion deal with  Russia to purchase eight more Kilo (Project 636) submarines (see also and

This has not gone unnoticed by Taiwan, Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Australia, and all the other adjacent nations. Russia cannot be ruled out of the equation as a nation who could ultimately be threatened by China. With Vladivostok being the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet and abutting both Korea and China, Russia has reason to be concerned about national security in the future. Vladivostok  is closed by ice from Jan to March and militarily undefendable by land forces.

How prophetic these 2010 words musing have proven to be (ref. ‘China’s Sunken Warships – Part 4′) :-

  • “ . . . This commentary on China’s Sunken Warships began with Part 1 looking into China’s maritime fleet and gunboats in the ‘inter-war years’. And yet, almost unnoticed, we are, in 2010, in another ‘inter-war’ period; we have another military build-up underway this time Asiatic; and a Western world that is again weary of war (and its expense). Russia, by contrast, has government coffers bulging from the profits of oil and gas sales and a cavalier attitude to the future consequences of its present sales of hardware.”
  • “. ..   These developments have to be seen against the backdrop of China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974. In fact, from 1974 to 1999 ‘shoot-outs’ with the military forces of its neighbours, e.g. Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines have been a recurring theme over disputed islands including the Spratly Islands near Brunei in  the South China Sea.”

Russian has profited enormously from ‘playing the game’, i.e. by not being greedy and not being cast in the role of bully on the world stage. It has made friends with its neighbours and as a result has been able to negotiate for the building of oil and gas pipelines through neighbouring countries to its biggest customers in Europe. Russia blossoms economically from not only indigenous oil and gas reserves but arms sales.  In addition, it is not dependable on trade with the West.

China is comparable in some ways with pre-war Japan – it is totally reliant on oil imports and has perhaps lost billions of dollars it invested in Libya under Kaddafi. China appears not to care about the efficacy or morality of any regime with which it does business and it is closely with dubious African states, e.g. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. China’s indigenous reserves of raw materials are insufficient for world demand or to sustain its own growth; it has food problems exacerbated by a burgeoning a middle class; it has a sex imbalance – the by-product of a one child policy. It will have to look outwards to survive and feed its people. It will have to become more efficient agriculturally or  ‘buy’ land overseas for cultivation.

It does not have – as Japan did in the 20th century – a nation it can blackmail into funding its naval build up, nor does it have European colonial countries it can conquor and redirect raw materials to its homeland industries.

Blue Water Strategic Thinking

Russia has changed its military strategy to pay more attention to the construction of nuclear submarines. [8]  This begs the question ‘why ?’

Its reluctance at the UN during the Libyan and Syrian uprisings are perhaps indicative of its current foreign policy, namely, let the West shoulder the expense and not to become entangled in anything unless it is on its boarders, e.g. Accetia, or the Baltic states .

‘The Economist’ may very well be underestimating the determination of the Chinese in their search for oil in much the same way that much of the media  underestimated Hitler was in the 1930s. [9]

  • “ . . . Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese appear not to be trying to match the size and capability of America’s huge fleet. Officials describe the aircraft-carrier programme partly as a prestige project.China has been acutely conscious of being the only permanent member of the  United Nations without a carrier. Its rival India has long had one. Thailand has one too. Japan, another rival, has a carrier for helicopters that could be adapted for fighters.” 

‘The Economist’ may very also be wrong when it states that “The Chinese carrier’s actual deployment might yet be years away.”

However, to be truly a blue water fleet China’s task forces have to break-out or through the string of  islands that form a chain along its continental shelf. At present China is geographically hemmed in – it is land-locked in all but name as the various maps here demonstrate. The location of China’s coastline has the effect of funneling all shipping movments into a cone shape. She is limited, unlike the US and Russia to operating naval forces from one east facing coastline. This is characteristic of the dilemma faced by Germany in both World Wars, ie a small North Sea coast and the Baltic Sea easily bottled up by minefields.

In 1985, the Communist Party approved a PLAN proposal of an “Active Defense” posture.

The following is a paraphrase of the strategydefined as:

  • “Overall, the military strategy is defensive; we willattack only after being attacked at whicvh pointy the operations will be offensive.”
  • “Any counter-offensive undertaken will be limitless and have no boundaries”
  • When offensive operations are initiated they will beata time and in conditions that favour our forces.”
  • “We will eliminate the enemy’s forces and focus on the enemy force weaknesses.”

General Xu Guangyu, who used to serve in the PLA’s headquarters before his retirement has said ‘an aircraft carrier is a symbol of the power of your power of your navy.’ [12]

  • “China should at least be on the same level as other permanent members of the UN Security Council who have carriers.”
  • “It’s also a symbol of deterrence. It’s like saying, ‘Don’t mess with me. Don’t think you can ‘bully me.’ So it’s normal for us to want a carrier. I actually think it’s strange if China doesn’t have one.”

Active Defense replaced the previous strategic concept of Coastal Defense which owed much to the borders wars withRussia with the PLAN supporting Army operations.

After 1985, with Deng in charge of the economy, China had an epiphany – it realised as Japan had come to realise in the 1930s that it was wholly reliant for continued growth on the sea lanes that furnished it with food, raw materials and energy. Modernisation, expansion and better living standards would not be possible unless securuity of the seas was acheieved.

But it is the obligation placed on the PLAN to “protect the nation’s territorial sovereignty” that will most likely ‘light the regional blue touch paper.’  [11]

China’s “green water” ambitions will bring it into potential conflict from the Aleutians in the north down to the Kuriles linking Japan’s archipelago to Russia, the Ryukyus archipelago linking Japan to Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo.

Her “blue water” aspiration is more eastward, absorbing island chains running from the north at the Bonin Islands and moving southward through the Marianas, Guam, and the Caroline Islands. Is this a repeat of Japan’s calamitous Imperial expansion when nationalistic ambition overtook actual capability ?

Gen Xu now advises China’s government on its military modernisation programme. Seven nations currently operate carriers – it used to be eight, but the UK has just withdrawn its last one from service and will have to wait several years for a new one to be built.

Protecting Assets

Natural gas and oil deposits are the assets China has in mind to protect. These deposits are scattered all across the South China Sea and, in a recipe for conflict, China is claiming 100% of them for herself.

The lessons of the Falklands War / conflct have not been lost on the Chinese. In order to replicate Britain’s action in successfully rebuffing an invasion by a ‘lesser power’ but in the South China Sea, China would need an aircarft carrier.

China will also recall the part played by India’s single aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, during the Bangladesh War of independence in 1971 in neutralising Pakistan’s airforce, despite carriers tasks forces from the US and the UK and submarines from China and Russia being in the  vicinity (INS Vikrant – formerly HMS Hercules, a Majestic Class ‘light aircraft carrier’ (19,000 tons) launched in Sept 1945 and sold to India in 1957).

INS Vikrant and its aircraft not only blockaded the coast of what was then called “East Pakistan;” it also launched air strikes against air bases that destroyed the ability of the Pakistani air force to intervene in the fighting. Pakistan’s inability to use its Navy to support its Army or Air Force was a major factor in its defeat in 1971, and in the emergence of the new nation of Bangladesh. Since then, India has made major investments in its naval aviation (

A second carrier, HMS Hermes, was  sold to India in 1987 and became the INS Viraat. Refitted in 2009 there were reports that the ship (originally launched 1953) might be kept in service until 2020. India has the advantage of not being circumscribed by outlying island chains or close neighbours. It has an East and West facing coast with an infrastructure between the two.

Concurrently, India’s leaders in New Delhi decided to buy a rebuilt Soviet-era aircraft carrier from Russia. In the longer term the Indian Navy too is building a carrier of its own design in a shipyard in Bombay (Mumbai).

From the “PLA Daily” we learn something of the Chinese thinking:

  • “ . . . The deterrent of this kind of capacity plays a significant role in protecting both the high seas and coastal waters.”
  • “ . . . As for the question of whether China dares to use the aircraft carrier when its territorial waters are being infringed, the answer is obvious.
  •  “ . . . Essentially, it is a kind of naval vessel or super battleship that is ready for fulfilling its military missions and maritime battles. If we do not have the courage or will to use it to solve territorial disputes, why would we have built it ?”
  • “. . . .China needed to build an ocean fleet to safeguard its maritime interests when putting forward the strategy of peaceful rise. China’s construction of aircraft carriers aims to better protect its maritime interests. In fact, whether or not China has aircraft carriers will not affect its determination to assure its territorial integrity or its capacity to fight any country with ill maritime practice. China will have greater confidence and determination after owning aircraft carriers. China will unswervingly safeguard its maritime interests without aircraft carriers.
  • “ . ..  The aircraft could be simply regarded as a mobile maritime airport. Essentially, it is a kind of naval vessel or super battleship thatis ready for fulfilling its military missions and maritime battles. If we do not have the courage or will to use it to solve territorial disputes, why would we have built it ? Are we spending countless money and occupying quite a part of the national budget to build it only for admiring it or scaring the countries that provoke China?  If it is necessary, China will use the aircraft carrier and other kinds of battleships to solve disputes. That is natural and logical.

Some of this is pure theatre but the article concluded, somewhat ominously:

  • “Furthermore, a single aircraft carrier has absolutely no fighting power and needs the protection of a huge fleet. … . . . Whether or not China has aircraft carriers [plural] is vitally important to a country like China with a vast maritime territory. Without aircraft carriers, China will neither control the air nor maintain effective presence in regions that are far away from its coastal territory. [13]

Maritime Claims

The maritime claims referred to in the above quote are depicted below. China’s illegal claim is marked by the red dotted line and the legally entitled sovereign waters of adjoining countries are marked in dotted blue lines.

China claims a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, a 24-nautical-mile ‘contiguous zone’, a 200-nautical-mile ‘exclusive economic zone’, (all distances permitted to all countries under a UN treaty), and a 200-nautical-mile continental shelf or the distance to the edge of the continental shelf.

China’s claim is nothing short of a land grab – a land grab for oil and gas reserves under the sea. China lays claim to all of the SpratlyIslands, the Scarborough Shoal and all of the Paracels Islands.

China has already come to blows with its neighbours over its greedy claims for their land (1974). 

In early June 2011 there was an incident, near the SpratlyIslands, between an oil-and-gas exploration ship chartered by the Vietnamese and a Chinese fishing vessel. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman complained that Vietnam was “. . . conducting unlawful oil and gas surveys around the Wanan Bank of the Spratly archipelago.” InVietnam, there was a public demonstration outside the Chinese embassy. But as the map above shows the only true rightful claimants are the Philippines and Brunei.

The truth is China has a rightful claim to only 2 or 3 of the many islets. If she insists on claiming them all including those reserved for Taiwan she opens herself up to accusation she once leveled at America and America’s allies, namely “lackeys and running dogs.”

Ties between China and Japan have been strained by a territorial row over the Senkaku  group of islands but referred to as the Diaoyu islands by China (see map below). [14]

The lack of mature behaviour expected of a great nation is typical of  China’s previous approach to anyone who doesn’t agree with them

China is not averse to cancelling orders and blocking contracts between unrelated countries, e.g. Holland and the  US supplying  Taiwan (and Japan) with more modern submarines. 

Again, as political tensions between China and Japan escalated over the Senkaku  group of islands ( Oct 2010) Japan’s two largest airlines found that 11,000 trips on flights to China had been cancelled. All Nippon Airways received 7,500 cancellations and Japan Airlines (JAL) about 3,600.

To gauge what some of these disputed small islands look like – often only rocky outcrops – see picture below.  The Senkaku islands in Japan’s territorial waters. The only other closest country that might reasonably claim theses islands is Taiwan.

Some of the world’s largest reserves of oil and gas have been detected in the South China Sea- but they lie in a neighbouring country’s maritime limits.

Left: Senkaku islands

If China is not to ‘seize up’ it needs those reserves under the Spratly and the Senkaku islands.

Part of the reason for this Chinese angst is that bothRussia and America have well established natural resources (oil and gas) within their own hinterland and or secure access to those overseas. China does not have secure access or a hinterland with oil and gas deposits.

Lastly, China is an atheist country surrounded by fervent Muslim and Catholic nations. Maritime guerilla warfare against these widely dispersed islands could and would severe oil and gas supplies to mainland China. Aircraft carriers would lose their advantage to the more modern silent running subs – the more so when stealth aircraft and or heavier-than-water submarines make their appearance.

More spending – new empire ?

Peking (Beijing) insists its military modernisation poses no threat to anyone – but is that promise of no hostility the same as not wanting to threaten or induce duress ? Chinese communiques are deft in the application of words.

The problem is that is smacks of the infamous Japanese “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which brought only puppet governments to dance to Tokyo’s tune and death and starvation to much of Asia’s people

Doris Naisbitt is someone well versed in the nuances of China and offers a different interpretation of China’s actions. As Director of the Naisbitt China Institute in Tianjin, and an author, she is firmly of the opinion that China is simply striving to carve itself a niche on the world stage proportionate to its size, economy and population. In an interview with Russia Today she said: [15]

  • “ . . . Chinese people who were born in the 1990s and did not witness the hardships of their parents, “really demand to do whatever they want to do.”
  • “.. . . China wants to restore the position that the old Chinese Empire once held, but “they are not fighting to dominate the world”

Naisbitt believes that if China wanted to dominate the world in any way, it would have to follow the American example and massively export its ‘culture’ because it is cultural dominance in the world thatgives a nation power and control – and not solely military might.  

  • “These days wars cannot be won – so why would China start a war that would be destructive for itself ?”

The difficulty is that for China to aspire to its position it held at the time of the old Chinese Empire nessitates treading on the rights – not to mention the toes -of all its neghbours. It would be comparable to Britain demanding the return of all her former  North American colonies.

Naisbitt concludes that as yet cultural dominance, e.g. Rock ’n’ Roll, Rolex watches, Chanel perfume, Coca Cola, Gucci handbags, Armani clothing etc. is one of the things that China really has to establish. They need to create cultural brands of their own; their own international consumer brand names which will be sort after in the 21st century.

Wars on land may not be won decisively anymore – as Afghanistan and Iraq are everyday proving – but naval engagements have a pedigree of being decisive and completed in a matter of hours – not drawn out over weeks or months.

Analysts speculate that the conflict between the UK and Argentina nearly 30 years ago pushed the late leader Deng Xiaoping to slash spending for one million army personnel  in order so as to use the then limited military budget to improve hardware.

China’s official military budget quadrupled between 1999 and 2009 as the country’s economy grew.  Last year China announced a smaller-than-usual 7.5% increase to $76.3bn, causing quite a backlash amongChina’s hard-line generals

But they are yet other signs of the shifting balance brought about by the rise of the country’s economic power. In a recent article published in a Chinese Communist Party publication General Jiang Luming, head of the military economics unit at China’sNational Defence University, called for “maximising national interest” by doubling China’s military funding to 2.8% of GDP, which he said was the average of 132 countries since the end of the Cold War.

He said this was needed to meet “special security requirements” – an apparent reference to preparing for eventual reunification withTaiwan, safeguarding key interests overseas and offshore, and China being a socialist country without any military allies.

The US defence budget is still the biggest in the worldataround $700bn, but China’s is currently the second largest and while American spending may be slowing down or declining there is little prospect of that happening in China for the foreseeable future (and for as long as China sees itself as requiring ‘Special requirements’).

The aircraft carrier has great economic symbolism – comparable to the Dreadnoughts of the late 19th century. At a time when China was launching its carrier, the United States was announcing the trimming in size of its carrier fleet in order to save money. One Chinese news media, the Xinhua News Agency took the opportunity to chide “has-been”America for spending reckless amounts on defense. The message was that it was paying the price for ‘meddling’ internationally while disregarding whether the economy could support such a policy.China, sitting on top of $2 trillion in reserves, now has the fiscal right to build military luxuries denied to others.

An Alternative View

Rick Fisher, a senior analystatthe International Assessment and Strategy Center, which is a think tank in Virginia, US. He has spent 20 years studying China’s military and sees the emerging situation through American eyes, concluding that China has big ambitions:

  • “The aircraft carrier is part of China’s fulfilment of its 2004 historic mission that the People’s Liberation Army will increasingly defend the Communist Party’s interests outside of China.”
  • “By the 2020s China wants a military that will be globally deployable and will be able to challenge American interests where they need to be challenged.”

In an effort to improve long-strained military relations between the US and China the Pentagon arranged for Chen Binged, the Chief of the General Staff of the PAL, to visit and was shown the comprehensive global reach of the US military.

Afterwards Chen Bingde tried to quell American anxieties by saying China would never seek to match US military power (China’s military is generally believed to be 20 years behind America’s in its development). China, he said, is no where near as advanced asAmerica.

  • “This visit to America, I saw America’s military power, I feel stunned, not only do we have no ability to challenge America, but also the American warships and aircraft, America’s strategy, it’s a real deterrent for us.”

This is reminiscent of the attempts made by Britain towards the Nazi regime in 1938 – 39 to avoid war. A German delegation was shown over the latest fighter aircraft and the advanced gyroscopic “reflector” gun sight was explained to them. This was probably one of the first “heads-up” display and it soon appeared on German fighter aircraft (and variants will still being used until the mid 1970s).

Triggering the flash point

 China’s decision to take the time and spend the money needed to win for themselves the benefits of sea-going airpower has implications for the East Asian region and for its relations theUS. It has no heritage of being a sea power or having a positive naval strategy. The proceeding series “China’s Sunken Warships” leave the indelible impression that a naval tradition and an institution has yet to be chiseled out of the raw stone face.

Today, US aircraft carriers are used forattacking targets far inland over Afghanistan and Iraq hundreds of miles inland. China may not actually use her aircraft carrier regionally but chose to safeguard her economic investments further afield, e.g. in Africa, from competitor nations.

An aircraft carrier is not required for an amphibious assault onTaiwan–China’s long held dream of re-unification. The distance from the invasion ports in the mainland to the landing beaches is about 100 miles; land-based aviation would be more than enough forChinato gain the required air superiority (Normandy invasion, June 6th, 1944).

However, the on-going dispute over the Spratly, Paracels  and Senkaku islands could each trigger an over-kill response. Apart from these flash points, the trigger states will most probably be the Philippines,  Taiwan and Vietnam.

However. China is still planning its own rapid expansion with the focus on weapons designed to blunt US military power.

Political Re-aligment

Diplomatically the intimidation felt by former adversaries, e.g.Vietnam and North Korea may well force a realignment of alliances with America.

Smaller regional countries will offer bases and services to the US in exchange for air cover and maritime protection from Chinese infringements. Many of these Treaties already exist. These bases, unlike carriers, will not be sinkable.

China may not be welcome at the G20 summits and may lose its status to trade with the West free of import levies.

Claiming a 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone, plus a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, and with both sides armed with ICBM armed submarines runs the risk of another Cuban Crisis poker game.

  • If political reality fails to kick in and there is an armed engagement of whatever description American can live with a win, draw or loose, but China cannot.
  • If a naval engagement cannot be averted and if China scores a victory over the USA then to who will it sell it products ?
  • If China draws or looses it will be a permanent set-back and the loss of face (psychological damage) will be incalculable.
  • China must be aware of the various scenarios having lived through the worst of them at the hands of the Japanese (and prior to that the European colonialists).

Unlike Japan in the 19th and 20th century, China cannot learn it naval tactics and drills from the best in the business. Russia has only a patchy history of navel success.

Taiwan, which has had tolerate Chinas blackmailing and direct interference with would-be arms suppliers has not surprisingly taken advantage of the launch of the Shi Lang by revealing a carrier-killer missile, the Hsiung Feng III. [16]

The prospect of a missile-riddled aircraft carrier ablaze and sinking has not escaped the Communist Chinese either. While they have invested heavily in submarines, China is believed to be close to deploying the world’s first “carrier-killer” ballistic missile, designed to sink aircraft carriers while they are manoeuvring at sea up to 1,500km (930 miles) offshore.

Combining stealth fighters, advanced carrier-based aircraft and submarines all of which can target US bases, US ships and US carriers in Asia the region is set to become a much more dangerous place for carrier fleets to operate either close to China’s coast or close to a friendly country’s coast. [17]



Appendix A

Relative carrier sizes in World War II (sample only)

HMS Victorious was an Illustrious class carrier ordered under the 1936 Naval Programme. She was launched in 1939 and operational in 1941. When the USS Hornet was sunk and the USS Enterprize badly damaged at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands the US Navy had only one fleet carrier, the USS Saratoga to deter the Imperial Japanese carrier fleet.

Left: HMS Victorious alias  USS Robin leaving Subic Bay Philippines 

In late December, 1942, HMS Victorious was loaned to the US Navy after an American request for carrier reinforcement and renamed USS Robin. She then took part in operations during 1942- 43 in the south west Pacific. This was followed by operations in the Arctic and against the Tirpitz (1944).

She had previously contributed to the sinking of the Bismark (1941) and Atlantic convoys. After her redeployment to the Eastern Fleet based at Colombo (Ceylon) she returned, in 1945, to the northern Pacific for the final assault on Okinawa, Japan.  There she was badly damaged but not sunk (steel flight deck).

 Right: April 1945  HMS Victorious ablaze after Kamikaze attacks

Other British carriers in action at Okinawa were: HMS Formidable, HMS Illustrious, HMS Indefatigable, and HMS Indomitable and though most were also hit by Kamikazes the steel flight deck minimised damaged.   (


Appendix B 

Stealth aircraft are the newest generation of aviation innovation. America’s Raptor F-22 (see also F-35 a joint strike aircraft project with Britain and other allies).





[2] Global Security. Org

[3] An international treaty prohibits aircraft carriers from sailing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean i.e. through the Bosporus straits. For this reason the Russian refer to their ships as heavy cruisers which also carry aircraft.

[4] In 2011 the former-Kiev underwent a multi-million dollar refit inChina to include a casino and luxury hotel.

[5] See ‘Quiet Electric Drive’ (QED) and ‘magnetohydrodynamic drive’ (MHD) – stealth propulsion for surface and submarine warships. See also closed cycle engines.


[7]  ‘Defense News’ echoed Chinese blog comments that the new fighter (apparently designated J-18), is ‘similar to the Russian Su-33 carrier-based fighter.’ That seems unlikely, as the Su-33 weighs 66,000 pounds fully loaded, three times as much as the world’s only successful jump jet, the Anglo-American AV-8 Harrier.

[8]  and “Misinformation persists over China’s aircraft carrier”, PLA Daily Aug 2011

[9] See “Name and purpose to be determined”, Aug 13th 2011

[10]Again, for more detail see “and “Misinformation persists over China’s aircraft carrier”, PLA Daily Aug 2011 (no single aircraft carrier likely) and 

[11] For detailed strategic implications see Report to Congress and

[12]  June 2011

[13] “Misinformation persists over China’s aircraft carrier”, PLA Daily Aug 2011 (Single aircraft carrier seems unlikely). 


[16]  Aug 2011.

[17]  See

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