Military benchmark illustrates the status of China's armed forces
China's first ever -- and still unfinished -- aircraft carrier completed its maiden trial voyage over the weekend, docking Sunday morning in the Chinese port city of Dalian. The shakedown cruise marks a genuine milestone for China. But for the United States, which remains the world's strongest naval power, it's little more than a reminder that the People's Liberation Army, China's military arm, could pose greater challenges down the road.
Naval experts say that there's really no comparison between the overall military capabilities of the United States and that of China. And for now at least, there's not much similarity between the overall near-term naval goals of each country either. China, for instance, mostly remains a localize power in the Asia Pacific region, while the United States has a significant presence worldwide. One aircraft carrier won't change that, experts say, but it could be an indication of where China's heading.
The carrier itself -- a former Soviet vessel which a Chinese tourism company reportedly bought for use as a casino from Ukraine in 1998 -- is at least a year or two away from entering into active service. Then becoming a fully operational mobile hub for aircraft could take several more years, as the Chinese learn how to use the carrier and build up a support group to protect it.
By contrast, now at any given moment, says American naval consultant Norman Polmar, the United States has 10 active aircraft carriers (11 total in commission), each of which can get 60 or more planes in the air immediately. "It's going to be a year or two before they even risk a night landing," Polmar says, referring to China. "That's something we do all the time."
Basic comparisons aside, that doesn't mean China's developing navy is insignificant for the United States, especially when considering both countries' interests in the Asia Pacific region, says David Finkelstein, director of China studies at CNA's Center for Naval Analysis, a non-profit based in Alexandria, Va. "The concern of the United States is not the capabilities that the Chinese are accruing, but the intentions that the Chinese party-state has in how it's going to employ these assets," he says. "So, while the capabilities are there on display, it's the intentions that people are concerned about."
Indeed, last week the U.S. State Department made a statement regarding the lack of transparency about the testing of China's aircraft carrier. "We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment," Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters last week. "This is part of our larger concern that China is not as transparent as other countries. It's not as transparent as the United States about its military acquisitions, about its military budget."
This lack of openness has left many onlookers guessing just what the People's Liberation Army is up to. Unlike the Soviets during the Cold War, says Bernard Cole, a naval expert and professor at the National War College, the Chinese likely don't see it is an "our navy versus their navy" type situation. Instead, he says, they're focused on specific scenarios.
In the region, the United States has partnered with China's neighbors, like the Philippines and Vietnam, to promote peace with the Chinese in a dispute over territory in the South China Sea. Taiwan, which the United States helps to protect, also remains one of China's top regional interests. So, according to Cole, China's most likely looking for strategic opportunities to get around the United States in these conflicts, rather than whether they could take on the U.S. Navy directly.
According to Owen Cote, associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Chinese even have a hard time reaching that relatively modest regional goal of preventing the U.S. Navy from interfering with its relationships with immediate neighbors. "They basically want to prevent us from influencing their ability to coerce their neighbors," he says. "If you do a whole net assessment, they still have a long way to go just to achieve that objective."
It's a common misperception, Cote says, to assume that China is building up its military power to compete with the United States. Rather, he says its more likely that China is concerned with its own interests, both around the Pacific and in areas like East Africa where it has economic ties. Therefore, even if its forces aren't strong enough to fight the U.S. Navy, China's likely to move forward regardless. "It would be completely buck naked from our point of view, but they might do it anyway because they have these other interests," says Cote.
As China joins the United States and other major powers, like Russia, the United Kingdom, and France, in the aircraft carrier club, the biggest effect may be the psychological one on its regional neighbors, says Polmar.
U.S. naval experts agree that probably more than their aircraft carrier, China's nuclear submarines could pose an earlier risk for the United States in the Pacific, especially as Chinese technology advances and their submarines become quieter and harder to detect. Also, China is rumored to have anti-ship ballistic missiles, which could potentially be used against U.S. aircraft carriers in a regional conflict. But, says Cote, the United States continues to have the edge in both technologies.
So, says Finkelstein, while the People' s Liberation Army, or PLA, is far from matching the United States, it has more military options than ever before. "We have an increasingly expeditionary PLA navy, a PLA navy that is operating further out to sea than it ever has before, a PLA navy that is acquiring capabilities that it never has before, and a PLA navy that has been given the mission of projecting presence in ways that it never has been asked to since the founding of the People's Republic of China," he says. "Experience-wise, education level, capabilities, the U.S. remains the paramount military force in the world today. That's not to say that the Chinese aren't getting better and could pose potential challenges if they choose to."
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