Second Tier Pacific Power?

Chinese Carrier Liaoning, or ex-Soviet Kuznetsov-class Varyag (photo: Reuters)

Chinese Carrier Liaoning, or ex-Soviet Kuznetsov-class Varyag (photo: Reuters)

Militaryparitet.com wrote recently about Jane’s Defence Weekly’s report on the possible start of construction of an indigenous Chinese aircraft carrier on Changxing, near Shanghai.  A new one, not an old one bought abroad and refurbished.

It may, or may not, be a carrier in the end.

Nevertheless, Militaryparitet quoted a 23 [sic] December Russia Today story about the Chinese carrier program:

“China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier will be a larger version of Liaoning.  The design is reportedly based on drafts of a Soviet-era, nuclear-powered, 80,000 ton vessel capable of carrying 60 aircraft.”

In other words, a later-day Ulyanovsk.

Militaryparitet also cites Voice of Russia.  It quoted Pavel Kamennov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the Far East, who claimed China will build two conventionally-powered carriers by 2015 [sic?] before constructing a nuclear one by 2020.

The government broadcaster tends to see a threat from China.  Its report came against the backdrop of Liaoning’s first deployment.

Then VoR turned to nationalist military commentator, retired naval officer Konstantin Sivkov to describe how the “geopolitical situation” will change when Chinese carrier groups take to sea in the future:

“. . . somewhere across 10 years China could put naval power comparable to the Americans on the Pacific Ocean.  This will signify that Russia has moved to the second tier on the Pacific Ocean, and the main players will be the USA and China.”

Now it seems likely China will soon surpass Russia as a carrier power.  Though one notes Moscow, even with a less than robust program, still has years of experience operating Kuznetsov that constitute a final remaining advantage over Beijing.

China catching the U.S. Navy is altogether different.

To its credit, Militaryparitet wrote that acquiring carriers is complex and expensive.  They take years to build, and many more to master their tactical and strategic operation.  There’s no substitute for experience in controlling carriers and battle groups under real-world conditions.  And the U.S. Navy has launched aircraft into combat from flattops for decades.

Those aren’t the only hurdles.

As the Russians learned, and the Chinese are learning, perhaps the most difficult step is fielding a high performance, carrier-capable fighter that can deliver a large combat load.  As RIA Novosti’s military commentator wrote in 2008:

“. . . to turn an ordinary fighter into a deck-based one through a small modernization is not possible.  The aircraft has to be designed from scratch, because the airframe of a deck-based aircraft experiences stress 2-3 times greater on landing than its ‘land-based brethren.'”

Not to mention the stress when the cat hurls it skyward.

So where does this leave us?

It’s no surprise Russian military observers and nationalist-minded elements lament the rise of China’s naval power and its fast-developing and emblematic carrier program.

But were it not for politeness, they could be reminded that China quite some time ago supplanted Russia as a “first tier” power in the Pacific in many ways.  Demographically, economically, diplomatically, and perhaps even militarily.

Other China-watchers (including many Russian ones) have a more benign, less zero-sum view.  They see Beijing as simply preparing to represent and defend its interests, which may or may not conflict with Moscow’s (or Washington’s for that matter).

Meanwhile, Western Russia-watchers tend a little cottage industry of trying to divine how Moscow really feels about China.  And the wisest ones probably say there’s more than one correct answer to this question.

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