Chinese officials gave U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a tour of an aircraft carrier this week. The Liaoning is their only such vessel — but not for long. China plans to build three more by 2020 as part of its new “blue-water navy,” a prospect that sounds alarming but isn’t. The cause for concern lies elsewhere.
A globe-spanning Chinese navy capable of operating across deep oceans will draw Beijing’s strategic vision away from its own neighborhood, where it’s embroiled in territorial disputes, and toward the global commons, which China will have a growing stake in securing. The U.S. Navy’s blue-water capabilities are vastly more powerful, and it will be that way for many years to come.
The greater danger is China’s other military investments. It’s deploying thousands of surface-to-surface missiles near its eastern shore, and it is also building a fleet of quiet diesel submarines and advanced anti-ship ballistic-missile batteries. China’s cyber-attacks on U.S. government agencies and private defense corporations have become increasingly aggressive.
These so-called asymmetric capabilities are tailored to goals that could bring China and the United States into conflict. The missiles stationed opposite Taiwan are intended to force Taipei into reintegrating with the mainland. The attack submarines and anti-ship missiles are designed to deter U.S. intervention in any dispute between China and its neighbors, as well as displace U.S. influence in the western Pacific. Cyber-attacks are likewise meant to counter the U.S. military’s conventional superiority.
China’s plans for a blue-water navy centered on aircraft carriers follow a course the U.S. Navy plotted more than half a century ago. This head start gives the U.S. an insurmountable lead in operational experience and military hardware. The Liaoning is a refurbished Soviet warship with a conventional (not nuclear) power plant and a tilted deck that severely limits the range and payload of its aircraft. It would be no match for any of the U.S. Navy’s 11 nuclear-powered carriers, each carrying twice as many aircraft and state-of-the-art catapults for launching them.
China’s planned new carriers will be far more capable than the Liaoning — but at a crippling price. The newest U.S. carrier will cost $13 billion. Add roughly 60 aircraft, 6,700 sailors, and other vessels to support and protect it, and a single U.S. carrier strike group costs roughly $6.5 million a day to operate. Such outlays are a questionable investment even for the U.S., let alone China. China’s blue-water ambitions will drain a significant portion of its military budget to a sphere it cannot hope to dominate.
Better still, the strategic aims that China can reasonably advance with a carrier-based navy are relatively benign. Such a force could protect China’s energy lifeline of oil tankers stretching to the Middle East, which is occasionally threatened by pirates. It could more effectively respond to humanitarian disasters and, if the need arose, evacuate Chinese citizens working in far-flung locations.
In addition, of course, China’s government wants its blue-water navy for prestige, as a symbol of the country’s rise to great-power status. That’s fine, too — so long as it poses no threat to U.S. naval dominance. When it comes to Chinese military power, aircraft carriers are the least of the world’s concerns.