China broadcast footage of its second aircraft carrier which has provided a good deal of information about the technical specifics of the ship, but its larger implications as well. The ship is bigger and can hold about 32 aircraft (J-15s). But it is slightly slower than the Liaoning. Most importantly, it is China’s first indigenous-built carrier.
The ship represents the newest efforts of Chinese reform and innovation. Chinese leaders have increased the budget of the navy; at the same time they’ve reduced the size of the army and reorganized the command structure. This means that Chinese naval forces will have a greater amount of modern equipment and form a larger part of their armed forces with this carrier as one of the central pieces. Though it’s important to remember that this ship is not combat ready, and it will not participate in their upcoming naval demonstration.
China is considered by many analysts as a traditional land power. This perception is somewhat correct as China did not have extensive blue-water navies throughout much of its history. Blue-water navies are described as ocean-going vessels and capital ships designed to operate in blue or deep water. In contrast to blue-water navies, a brown-water navy consists of small ships operating in swamps, marshes, and littorals. At periods throughout their history, such as the Ming Dynasty, China had vast treasure fleets and extensive overseas trades. But overall, the perception is a correct one.
Instead of the previous goals of a brown-water navy such as protecting littorals, traditional search and rescue missions or smuggling interdiction, China wants to expand its global role with these new and larger ships. China aggressively pursues its interests in the South China Sea by building up the islands, claiming sovereignty over them, and then treating freedom of the sea operations as provocations. They also increase the range and sophistication of weapons systems such as new cruise missiles (dubbed “carrier killing”) and the hypersonic missile, and continue to increase the amount of anti-air batteries all in an effort to make operating in areas like the South China Sea too difficult for the blue-water navies of foreign powers, especially the United States.
But not all of their actions are quite as aggressive as the doomsayers would believe. Chinese naval forces have participated in anti-piracy operations along the Horn of Africa. China will likely use this new ship to protect its interests and shipping in places like the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. They have established bases in Gwadar, Pakistan and Djibouti near the Red Sea. Not everything is a black-and-white contest with the Chinese acting with sinister intent.
There is a good chance China wants this training operation of their carrier to operate the same way as the Great White Fleet. To expand the military and naval power, especially in the early 20th century in order to protect and promote America’s interest abroad, Theodore Roosevelt acted with vigor. This included the construction of 11 battleships between 1904 and 1907. Mahan’s naval theories described in “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” influenced Roosevelt a great deal. In contrast to theories that advocated for commerce raiding, coastal defense and small brown-water ships, the imperative to control the sea required battleships and a blue-water navy that could engage and win decisive battles with rival fleets. The mission of the Great White Fleet exemplified America’s new power and their intended missions. This fleet of 16 all-white battleships sailed around the word and showed the flag between 1907 and 1909. If European analysts interpreted American actions the same way as modern analysts interpret Chinese actions, we might conclude that Roosevelt was aggressively warning his neighbors and had sinister intentions.
China’s development of a new killer anti-ship cruise missile makes their development of a new carrier very ironic as well. Many analysts warn that weapons like the cruise missile will make it so dangerous to operate near China that American forces won’t be able to enter. A short review of its potential impact and the American counter responses suggest the threat isn’t nearly large as analysts believe. Building a carrier implies that China might advertise their missiles and A2AD strategy as a game changer while still believing the carrier is an important logistical and symbolic platform to display their national strength. It reinforces the idea that the Chinese need more than a narrowly-focused new technology, and must contest America’s dominance of blue waters with a fleet of its own. It might even suggest that the Chinese don’t believe in the capability of their weapons systems to penetrate American defenses. Or maybe they are simply covering all of their bases. Whatever the exact reason, the reforms and carrier suggest China is serious about their new mission.