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China’s ‘post-American’ naval ambitions

Does China’s development of a next-generation aircraft carrier reflect ambitions to reshape Asia in its own image following a US decline?

Does China’s development of a next-generation aircraft carrier reflect ambitions to reshape Asia in its own image following a US decline?

Last November, a Pentagon report confirmed China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) battle force totals approximately 355 ships and submarines — the world’s largest naval fleet.

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The overall fleet is expected to expand to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030.

Beijing’s shipbuilding endeavour has included a push to bolster local production of aircraft carriers.

The PLAN commissioned its first locally built aircraft carrier in late 2019, with a second aircraft carrier to enter service by 2024.

Most recently, China unveiled its first fully sovereign Type 003 aircraft carrier, dubbed Fujian.

According to Sam Roggeveen, director, international security program at the Lowy Institute, the launch of this latest aircraft carrier reflects Beijing’s ambitions to become a military power of global standing and reach.

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“And it suggests that China is prepared to compete with the United States on what has long been Washington’s strongest territory, he writes. 

“US military dominance, particularly in Asia, is built on maritime power, which in turn is built around its carrier fleet. Now China is offering a direct challenge: anything you can do; we can do bigger and better.”

Roggeveen notes the Fujian carrier is a “big improvement” on the two previous locally built ships, which are smaller and feature ski jump take-off capability.

In contrast, the Type 003 leverages catapults powered by advanced electromagnetic design features.

However, he acknowledged unlike the US fleet of aircraft carriers, the Fujian is not nuclear-powered, increasing its dependence on ship-to-ship refuelling.

Roggeveen also flags China’s lack of scale, with the 11 supercarriers operated by the US each more powerful than China’s Fujian, which won’t be battle-ready for at least five years.  

But China’s production of aircraft carriers is not a “direct challenge” to the United States, instead, Roggeveen argues Beijing is playing the long game — waiting to pounce following what it perceives as a declining US presence.

“For the United States, aircraft carriers have been useful in the post-Cold War era against countries that were largely defenceless when it comes to naval warfare — Iraq, Libya, and Yugoslavia, for instance,” he continues.

“In fact, the US Navy has tacitly acknowledged this point by gradually decreasing the range of the combat aircraft it fields aboard its carriers.

“Why bother with long range if you can safely sail the carrier itself close to enemy shores?”

China, he claims, may be designing its carrier fleet for the same purpose.

“It wants a force that can help the Communist Party coerce or punish smaller powers, not fight a peer competitor,” he writes.

“Right now, of course, China would find it hard to deploy this kind of power without stumbling into America’s security network in Asia.

“But already that network is fraying at the edges, as China has demonstrated by effectively taking control of the South China Sea, building artificial islands there and equipping them with military facilities.”

China’s inroads in the Indo-Pacific have been met “without much resistance” from the United States, given the threat of a large-scale confrontation.  

Roggeveen continues: “So, the Type 003 may not be a direct challenge to American naval power. Rather, it is a sign that China is thinking about an era when the credibility of US power in Asia has further eroded and when China itself has a freer hand to deal with smaller countries.

“In other words, China is building a post-American fleet.”

However, he writes, China could not dominate Asia’s waters with aircraft carriers alone.

“The Pacific is vast, and even China’s resources will be thinly spread. Beijing will need foreign bases to improve surveillance of the region and reduce transit time for its aircraft and warships.

Roggeveen references reports claiming China is building a naval facility in Cambodia, and points to the recent security agreement struck with the Solomon Islands.

“Most Asian countries would prefer a future in which China is not the dominant power. But they also recognise that the United States cannot maintain its military edge against a challenger of this scale,” he adds.

“So, the first part of any counter to China’s rise as a military power is to recognise that it cannot be left to the Americans.”

Roggeveen calls on regional powers — including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) — to leverage statecraft, diplomatic, and economic efforts to frustrate Chinas push to develop “client-state relationships”.

This could be supplemented by a “military counter to China’s ambitions”, inspired by Beijing’s own playbook.

“China itself offers a good model for how smaller countries can protect themselves against seemingly overwhelming naval power,” Roggeveen writes.

“In the first few decades of its military modernisation drive, China focused not on how it could dominate the oceans but on how it could stop the United States from dominating.

“It built a vast array of anti-ship capabilities for that purpose: submarines, aircraft armed with sea-skimming missiles, small high-speed naval vessels that ‘shoot and scoot before an enemy can respond, and even ballistic missiles that can hit ships moving at sea — and that are almost impossible to defend against.”

Roggeveen concludes: It would be too costly and risky to stop China from becoming the leading maritime power in Asia, but with smart investment, smaller countries can certainly erode the coercive potential of the Chinese fleet and stop Beijing from becoming the dominant power.

“Carriers are a sign of Chinese power — but that doesn’t mean Beijing has to rule the waves.”

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

China’s ‘post-American’ naval ambitions
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