China’s first aircraft carrier was formally commissioned on Sept. 25. China sees the carrier as the end of a long struggle to gain global respect and acceptance as a major military power. The Liaoning enters service at a time when Beijing and Tokyo argue over control of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. China has spent the last several years being more assertive in the South China Sea, coming into conflict with the Philippines and Vietnam, and challenging U.S. Navy action in the area.
Chinese commentators already have asserted that Chinese aircraft carrier capability would significantly improve its strategic position in its island claims. But Beijing gave the Liaoning hull number 16 — a two-digit rather than three-digit code — identifying it as a training rather than a combat ship.
Although it has a long coastline, throughout its history China has focused on its interior and on its even longer land borders. Most of China’s natural resources and human capital are easily accessed using land routes, and most of its security threats lie along its land borders. As a result, China has rarely built out a strong navy. It was not until the 1990s, when China was clearly emerging as the new source of global manufacturing, that China shifted attention to improving its navy. China’s need for imports and access to overseas markets makes a strong navy more important.
To some degree, the development of naval power shows that China is no longer weak as it was during the Qing Dynasty. The Chinese navy is also considering operations further from Chinese shores. The navy is gaining experience through anti-piracy patrols off the east coast of Africa and is expanding its own satellite system for positioning and guidance.
The addition of the Liaoning allows the Chinese to move aircraft further from their shore, giving them more power in the East and South China Seas. But in building a stronger navy, China also sends a very aggressive signal to China’s maritime neighbors.
The carrier itself will not increase China’s overall naval capabilities in the short term, nor will it help Beijing more effectively defend its maritime claims. But it already has lent greater credence to the international perception that China is increasingly aggressive.
China’s regional rivals have recognized the threat and are adjusting to it. Expansion of naval and anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons are occurring throughout the Asia-Pacific region — hand-in-hand with the development and enhancement of defense partnerships and alliance structures.
As China’s navy continues to grow, the response from surrounding countries may lead to just the opposite of what Beijing wishes — the formation of an oceanic great wall, one not designed to keep China’s enemies out, but rather to keep China locked in.