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Dealing with Chinese sea power

Publication Date : 01-10-2012


With tensions rising from competing maritime claims in the East and South China seas, it is not the most tranquil moment for China to launch its first aircraft carrier. Yet countries in the region and beyond should see this as an inevitable milestone in China's military modernisation.

It has taken years to refit the rusting hulk of a Soviet-era Ukrainian vessel into the 300m-long Liaoning. It will take even more years for the warship to become fully operational with an air wing of fighters, probably still to be built, and pilots and crews, yet to be trained. There is little reason, even for small neighbours, to fear any immediate threat.

Having the means to project force is consistent with a country's aspiration to superpower status.

China, as its state media has correctly pointed out, is the last of the five permanent United Nations Security Council member states to acquire a carrier. Indeed, even lesser powers like Italy, Spain and Thailand have at least one each. India, the other resurgent Asian giant, also has one.

Despite the triumphant occasion of its commissioning, the Liaoning is essentially part of a defensive system, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has insisted, perhaps not too convincingly. Mention has even been made of its potential humanitarian role. History and geography, too, supply persuasive reasons why China needs a strong navy. For more than a century since the humiliating 1840 Opium War, the country suffered numerous invasions along its 18,000km coast.

A carrier, however, inherently affords an offensive or, at least, an offensive-deterrent platform.

The Liaoning is likely to become the core of a carrier battle group that China naturally feels it must have to project its power within and beyond the adjacent seas. The Liaoning, to have been refurbished as a Macau floating casino, is more than a symbolic chip in the changing balance of power.

With growing firepower, China needs to act responsibly and not gamble with the region's peace and security. Importantly, it needs to strive to make clear its intentions and not leave its neighbours to fear the worst. If it resolutely holds high the larger interest, international respect is likely to follow.

It is necessary for others to accept and deal with the reality that a shift in the balance of power has begun and is continuing in the region. Smaller states should not overreact. As it pivots back towards Asia, the United States should not respond in alarmist fashion to a more forward Chinese naval presence eventually.

Instead, the US should continue to engage China on a broad, including non-military, front while working harder to counterbalance Chinese power and influence among friends and allies.


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