A recent report indicated that China’s first Aircraft Carrier, reportedly to be named the Shi Lang is set to make its maiden voyage later this year. This new news, coupled with information coming out China’s first carrier-based aircraft, the J-15 Flying Shark is set to enter operation in 2015 has brought into question the sustainability of the US defense posture in the straights of Taiwan. Manner of these concerns are overly alarmist, as the Chinese PLAN as of now is far from a worthy adversary of the US Navy.
The Shi Lang, formerly known as the Varyag, was purchased from Ukraine in 1998. Effectively, the Chinese purchased nothing more than the hull of a future carrier, as international political pressure had pushed the Ukrainians to remove the engine components. Over a decade later, the new vessel is new completion, and is set to be launched in the near future. Despite the introduction of a new vessel to the growing East-Asian arms race, it will take years for the PLAN to learn how to operate the carrier efficiently, and even longer perhaps to develop the doctrine necessary to use the vessel effectively.
An Aircraft carrier is of little effectiveness without its aircraft, and the model designated to line the flight deck of the Shi Lang, the J-15 Flying Shark is a long way off from being ready for operations. Questions regarding its engine’s serviceability aside, crews of the J-25, like the future crew of the Shi Lang will take time to learn how to use their new weapons of war. China has no tradition or knowledge of landing and operating aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier, and will take additional years in order to learn how to. Even after PLAN sailors know how to operate the Shi Lang, and even after the J-15 pilots learn how to land their planes aboard said vessel, it will take even longer for the Chinese Navy as a whole to learn how to operate in unison, and to decide on which ship designs best work for their operational goals.
Given the long-term nature of this development, it is entirely likely that the Shi Lang will end up being used soley for training purchases. Current estimates place China’s development of its own nuclear-powered Aircraft carriers as beginning production as early as 2020. Rising economic trouble within China is likely to delay this progress. Even then, it will take several more years to complete contruction, buying additional time for the United States and Taiwan.
What should US policy be regarding the PLAN build up? As of now, a wait and see approach is the most viable. It will take years for the PLAN to construct a force capable of projecting sustained power in the straight of Taiwan. Even with its global commitments, the US Navy, in a time of crisis, would be able to outmatch any force the Chinese could muster in the foreseeable future. Instead of focusing on the military hardware of the growing Chinese threat, it would be better for US policy makers to work on building its regional alliances with the ASEAN nations. Just as a geographical ring was drawn around the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so too can a ring of friendly nations circling China play in favor of US policy objectives. Let us continue to keep our own military and political situation strong in the Western Pacific, and the outcome of the PLAN’s contruction program will be of little import.