April 22, 2009 4:12:06 pm
At the Chinese Navys coming out party this week in the northern port of Qingdao,the buzz is all about aircraft carriers. Everyone wants to know if the Peoples Liberation Army will soon confirm a decision on building carriers.
Chinas debate on aircraft carriers is not new. For some years now there has been an open debate within the strategic community on the benefits and costs of acquiring carriers. The debate has in fact been about the kind of naval power that Beijing should become.
For the nationalists,building aircraft carriers is all about underlining Chinas rise in the international system. Pointing to history,they argue that all great powers build strong navies. And nothing demonstrates the maritime power of a nation than an aircraft carrier.
The enthusiasts of sea-power in China insist that without aircraft carriers,China will be unable to secure its growing interests far from the national shores and in defending against threats to its massive sea-borne trade. They highlight the fact that China is the only major power in the world today without a carrier capability.
The more prudent among the Chinese strategists caution against building aircraft carriers. They argue that blind pursuit of maritime ambitions might put Beijing on a premature collision course with the worlds dominant naval power,the United States.
Those advocating that China should bide its time propose that Beijing must concentrate instead on defensive naval capabilities that will deny ocean spaces near its teritory to the United States.
The indication in the last couple of years has been that the nationalists might be winning the argument. When China announced its decision last December to dispatch a flotilla to the Gulf of Aden,the first Chinese naval mission away from its shores,it dropped a hint that major decisions may have already been made on the carriers.
At that time the PLA top guns declared that “China has the right and capacity to develop aircraft carriers. It should not come as a surprise if one day China decides to do so.”
That day might not be too far off. Chinese and international media have been speculating that China is building two aircraft carriers with plans to commission the first in 2015.
More recent reports suggest that Chinese leadership has taken a political decision to build not just two,but four to six aircraft carriers. For many aircraft carriers are a mere political symbol and a costly one at that.
You might agree with that proposition when a country has just one carrier. When a rising power plans to build six of them,we must recognise the arrival of a great new maritime power.
By the time PLAs naval party ends at Qingdao this week,there will be no doubt about Chinas maritime intentions. It is all set to project military power very far from its shores in the not too distant future.
(C. Raja Mohan is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore)
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