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The Commissioning of Liaoning: An Example of China’s Declaratory Strategy?

Adrien Frossard is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 22, 2012

    On 23 September 2012, the handover ceremony of China’s first aircraft carrier, finally named as Liaoning, took place at Dalian Port. The ceremony was attended by the top Chinese leadership, thus highlighting the importance attached to this event. This highly symbolic event took place against the backdrop of rising tensions related to the maritime domain. Hostility is currently rising between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, especially after Japan bought three of the five isles. China is also embroiled with its Southeast Asian neighbours in rival maritime claims in the South China Sea. This turbulent and potentially conflicting backdrop increases the focus on naval capabilities, even though diplomacy still prevails. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has not yet been used to support the Chinese claims in these contested areas, but the commissioning of the Liaoning comes at the right time enhancing as it does China’s military means to assert its sovereignty at sea.

    For those who followed the story from the beginning, the commissioning of the Chinese aircraft carrier does not come as a shock since it is the fruit of a long process of maturation, a process that is not yet over. China’s first move towards an aircraft carrier capability took place in 1985, when it purchased the old Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne as part of a programme to develop carriers.1 Then in 1998, China acquired the hull of an old Ukrainian carrier, the Varyag, with the purpose of restoring it. The process of refitting took place in Dalian from 2002 to 2010. Once this phase was completed, the Varyag, which came to be known as the Shi Lang in August 2011, completed its sea trials between August 2011 and September 2012, validating its sailing capability. It is this carrier that has now been officially christened as the Liaoning. The carrier has to go through several other steps before it can become fully operational. First, it has to get its complement of aircraft. Only after trials validating the ability of the ship to fly aircraft will the process of operational qualification be over. Thereafter the PLAN will still have to define how it will be employed in military operations.2 Only after a field doctrine is defined will the Liaoning be fully operational.

    Given all this, the question that begs an answer then is, why the publicity? The announcement of the commissioning of the Liaoning in itself is of little interest. It makes more sense if related to the current backdrop and the declaratory strategy of China, to the modernization effort of the PLAN, and to the important implications it has for the future.

    Military Significance

    First of all, we have to consider the current capabilities of the Chinese carrier to assess if it shifts the balance of power. Currently, its military capabilities are practically non-existent, since it has no aircraft to fly for the moment. According to different experts, the Liaoning will be mainly used for training and to gain experience in the way aircraft carriers are operated. China has no prior experience of operating carriers and such a process is likely to take time. So contrary to the proud declarations of Chinese leaders, the commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier does not radically change the current balance of power. Since it has the ability to sail and due to its inherent characteristics, the Liaoning’s only military purpose in the current situation could be to operate as a Land Platform Dock for an amphibious force. According to Chinese Rear Admiral Yang Yi :“the development of aircraft carriers is an important part of China’s national defence modernization, in particular its naval forces, and this aircraft carrier is an essential stepping stone towards its own more advanced aircraft carriers in the future.”3 As he rightly points out, the value addition of the Liaoning does not lie in its current capabilities, but in the potential capabilities it will provide China with in the future.

    According to defense expert Bonnie Glaser: “as designed, it [the Liaoning] could be armed with 8 AK-630 AA (anti-aircraft) guns, 8 CADS-N-Kashtan CIWS, 12 P-700 Granit SSM (surface-to-surface missiles), 18 8-cell 3K95 Kinzhal SAM VLS (surface-to-air missiles, vertical launch system), and the RBU-12000 UDAV-1 ASW (anti-submarine warfare) rocket launcher. As designed, the carrier could carry 26 fixed-wing aircraft (likely the Shenyang J-15) and 24 helicopters.”4 In the future then, the Liaoning could be a key maritime asset and significantly improve Chinese power projection. Its commissioning is also to be related with the current modernization of the PLAN. First, China’s carrier acquisition could take another dimension as the PLAN has announced its intention to acquire two or more indigenously designed carriers.5 Even if the temporal horizon is the long term, it could tremendously shift the balance of power in the region in China’s favour since China would be able to deploy strong carrier groups. Since the commissioning of the Liaoning in itself does not change the present balance of power, it then makes more sense if it is interpreted as a diplomatic message.

    A Diplomatic Message

    China has already used military announcements to support its political stances in the past. We can recall the episode of the J-20, with pictures “leaked” to the media just before the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived for a visit to China in 2011. The commissioning of the Liaoning can be seen as one such declaratory move aimed at signalling commitment to defend Chinese interests in the South China and East China Seas. Even if the current military value of this asset can be questioned, the way China presented it carries significance. Thus, Premier Wen Jiabao talked of the event as of “mighty and deep significance”6 , trying to convey the idea of a military shift. More simply, the message China wanted to send is very clear: “we are closing the naval gap!”

    We can also see a message in China’s choice of name for the ship. As it started its sea trials one year ago, it was referred to as the Shi Lang by Chinese and Western media, a name that comes from the Qing dynasty which conquered present-day Taiwan in 1681 after the Battle of Penghu. Such a name can lead us to think that China’s clear intention is to level its military means with its political ambitions in the maritime domain. China has been constantly claiming the bulk of the South China Sea as part of its territory, thus such a message would be a source of concern for the neighbouring states. The eventual choice of Liaoning is more neutral as it refers to the province that contains Dalian Naval Shipyard, where the carrier was refitted. Such a name is more common as the PLAN typically names its ships after Chinese localities, like the “Qingdao” guided missile destroyer, or the “Yantai” guided missile frigate. Finally, the name Liaoning bears significantly less aggressiveness than the previous and cannot be subject to controversy.

    A Message for Whom?

    Given that a lot of publications underline the China-US rivalry as a feature of the near future, the message could be aimed at the United States. However, this is highly unlikely since a single aircraft carrier, even if fully operational, would not suffice to balance American naval power in the region. As James Holmes notes, the Chinese carrier is much smaller than its American counterparts, its features make it more dependent on external support and American crews have considerably more experience than Chinese crews.7 The pivot strategy currently being implemented is also likely to increase the US Navy’s edge over that of the PLAN in the near future. Accordingly, the Chinese are unlikely to try and provoke the United States at this time; nor has there been any official reaction from US officials.

    Let us now take a look at China’s neighbours. In the East China Sea, Japan is seen as a rival as the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are currently flaming passions between the two countries. In this context, even if the military balance is not affected by the commissioning of the Liaoning, the message of China’s move towards aircraft carriers can be alarming as Japan does not have such means. Japan has a defence treaty with the United States, and it covers the disputed territory as well. Thus, Japan knows that its American ally has the means to successfully balance China, even if the latter deploys carriers. Consequently, China’s diplomatic message is unlikely to alarm Japan, at least not as the primary recipient.

    Things are, however, different when it comes to the South China Sea. With the exception of Taiwan, the bulk of China’s neighbours do not have the benefit of a strategic defence partnership with the United States to balance China,8 which makes them more vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to Chinese bullying. Indeed, these countries are considerably weaker than China and do not have sufficient means to counter China should it turn aggressive. The atmosphere is currently tense in the region, as China claims the bulk of the South China Sea as part of its territory, even though as of now diplomacy prevails. The commissioning of the Liaoning, coming only a month after China’s decision to set up a military garrison on Sansha on the Yongxing Island, opens the prospects for a dramatic increase in China’s edge over its South China Sea neighbours, thus raising the stakes for them. Thus, they are likely to be the main targets of China’s declaratory strategy as it puts more pressure on them to negotiate with China, from a weaker position.

    Relevance for India?

    Like its Chinese counterpart, the Indian Navy (IN) is also modernising. The IN is currently moving towards a more modern and highly capable blue water navy. This move has been endorsed by successive Indian naval strategists and Navy officers, from Panikkar to Sureesh Mehta. The PLAN is much larger than the IN, and it surpasses it in number of combatants. However, China lacks an aircraft carrier and therefore the attendant subsequent capabilities. The IN, though it has fewer combatants, can operate through the full spectrum of naval capabilities. India has had the experience of operating aircraft carriers for long, as it purchased its first aircraft carrier from the British in 1957. Since then, India has had the opportunity to understand and refine its carrier usage with maximum efficiency. Currently, India is refitting a Russian carrier and is looking to commissioning its first indigenous built carrier in 2020, opening the prospect of a three-carrier Navy by constructing a second indigenous carrier that is in the pipeline. In the meantime, it is unlikely that the Chinese would be able to close the gap as the IN has a carrier operating experience that spans decades.

    The prospect is different if we investigate the long term perspective. As the issue of Taiwan remains of crucial interest to China, the Liaoning is likely to be based and operate mainly in this area. But as the Chinese envisage building more aircraft carriers, we can reasonably state that its carrier group would sail further away once China masters the technology and expertise. In this regard, the ‘String of Pearls’ could prove very useful as it can provide supply bases for carrier deployment beyond China’s neighbouring waters. Such an extension of China’s power projection would overlap with India’s interests as China could deploy its assets not only in the South China Sea where India has economic interests, but also in the Indian Ocean Region which is of core interest to India. Such an intrusion by China would certainly be seen in India as provocative. Thus, even if we agree that the commissioning of the Liaoning is not targeted at India, it could lead in the future to a more capable PLAN that can project power into the Indian Ocean and challenge the IN whose primary mission is Sea Control.9 It is therefore crucial that India monitors Chinese naval developments as well as speed up its own carrier procurement programme. If the Indian programme is unsuccessful, or becomes inordinately delayed, India could lose its edge over China in its own waters in the future.