Calculated Risk: This Is How China Will Use Its Aircraft Carriers Against America

Bryan McGrath, Mackenzie Eaglen

Key Point: China understands that its carrier force would be a pivotal and influential capability, essential to its quest for regional dominance.

China’s recent release of its first strategic white paper signals its official emergence as a maritime—and therefore global—power. Little in the document should surprise those who have monitored China’s rise, though it remains to be seen whether China watchers will discern nuance and inscrutability instead of taking Beijing at its word. Simply put, China views the United States as Asia’s hegemon, and its strategy seeks to deprive the United States of this role.    

In its quest to eject the United States from a position of power and influence in the region, China has embarked upon a naval building and modernization program. At first, this program seemed aimed at rendering U.S. wartime support to Taiwan moot after the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis.  The effort included weapons and platforms designed specifically to target U.S maritime power projection capability—primarily resident in the air wings of its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier force. Early on, some assigned non-threatening motives for the buildup given the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue to Beijing. Yet over time, China began to develop weapons and sensor architectures far beyond those necessary or even useful for Taiwan scenarios. The Chinese naval program began to lay the foundation for regional maritime dominance and global influence by building modern multi-purpose destroyers, nuclear attack submarines, amphibious vessels, and an improved logistics force.

By far the most powerful symbol of China’s design on regional dominance is the development of its own fleet of aircraft carriers. With one flat-top already launched and two to three more in the works, an interesting question arises. Why would a nation that has spent considerable time and effort to deny the U.S. Navy freedom of maneuver by creating the impression that its aircraft carriers were vulnerable embark on the expensive, logistically arduous, and operationally dubious decision to build its own carriers? The answer is that the benefit of a carrier force to achieving China’s strategic goals far outweighs the risks associated with operating them—a lesson that the United States once embraced, and one which must be generationally re-learned.

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