China’s Aircraft Carriers Have Nothing with Maritime Disputes

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2019-11-19 | Hu Bo

This article is excerpted from Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century (Routledge July 2019), pp.71-73.


It is only natural that a major power such as China ought to possess aircraft carriers. China’s uses of aircraft carriers will not differ greatly from those of the UK and the US. Nevertheless, the emergence of China’s aircraft carriers has astonished a number of countries, attracting an onslaught of wide-ranging speculation, which includes two highly representative arguments. The first claims that they will be used to settle maritime disputes in the South China Sea and other waters in China’s vicinity, while the second asserts that they are to challenge the US for maritime hegemony.

However, even those with the slightest trace of common sense should understand that China’s main motive for its development of aircraft carriers is certainly not the settlement of maritime disputes with neighboring countries, as China pursues a policy of peaceful dispute resolution. Moreover, even if Chinese policymakers were determined to utilize armed force or forceful measures to resolve maritime disputes with Japan and some Southeast Asian countries, aircraft carriers would not act as the main combat platform.


First, with comprehensive progress in China’s military modernization, China has an ever growing number of alternative policy options from which to select. At present, the Chinese Air Force and Naval Air Force are equipped mainly with combat aircraft consisting of Shenyang J-10, J-11, Sukhoi Su-27, Su-30 and other third-generation combat fleets, all of which have operational radiuses of approximately 1500 km or above. This is no longer the era that was spearheaded by the limited J-6 and J-7, therefore no matter whether the Diaoyu Islands or the Nansha Islands, both are within the effective radius of China’s land-based fighter jets. In the future, as China’s fourth-generation aircraft like J-20 enter active service in large numbers, maintaining the advantages of air supremacy in the East China Sea and the South China Sea will be a foregone conclusion. With regard to missiles, China has formed an overwhelming advantage over its neighboring countries. China’s land-launched cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles can deter adversaries through saturation attacks in certain waters. Whereas along China’s coast, hydro-acoustic conditions are complex and marine geography unique, offering an ideal situation for the activities of China’s silent running submarines, such as the Kilo-class, Yuan-class, and Song-class. China can use these submarines to effectively check and contain opponents’ surface vessels. Furthermore, the combat capacity and versatility of Chinese surface vessels are growing stronger. Domestically made destroyers, such as the 052B and 052C models, and four modern destroyers introduced from Russia have relatively strong overall operational capacities, including air defense, anti-submarine, and anti-ship capabilities, and are able to retaliate, blockade, provide firepower, and carry out other combat missions in coastal waters. As for 052D destroyers, which are beginning to be mass produced, they harbor greater overall maritime combat capability, in particular its regional air defense system has been lauded as the Chinese version of “Aegis”. As China has so many choices in its arsenal, what need is there to bother with aircraft carriers?


Second, as aircraft carriers are unsuited for coastal operations, their value in resolving maritime disputes is extremely low. Aircraft carriers are combat platforms and instruments that operate principally on the high seas, whereas due to space restrictions, it is difficult to fully demonstrate the combat effectiveness of aircraft carriers in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and other coastal areas.  Moreover, in comparison to China’s and its opponents’ large fleets of land-based fighter jets, the dozens of carrier-borne aircrafts play only a very minor role. On the other hand, aircraft carriers operating in coastal waters face immense risks. Aircraft carriers are extremely vulnerable to be monitored and tracked from shore-based radar surveillance, electronic interception, and reconnaissance aircraft in coastal waters, such as the East China Sea and the South China Sea. They are also susceptible to attacks from ground-based aircraft, cruise missiles, submarines, and other Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons. In times of war, not only would aircraft carriers not be of great assistance in coastal areas, they could easily be “taken hostage”.


It is likewise unthinkable that the mission of China’s aircraft carriers is to compete with the US for maritime hegemony. Disregarding the fact that China has no such strategic intentions, even if China wished to challenge the US Navy in the high seas, it is extremely foolish to assume that it would use aircraft carriers and large-scale formations to engage in battle. With regard to the construction and distribution of sea power, US strength will continue to exceed that of China for a long time to come. If China attempted to initiate a symmetrical contest with the US in the high seas, pitting aircraft carriers against aircraft carriers, it would be very difficult for China to gain the upper hand. In terms of aircraft carrier technology, there are generations of differences between China and the US. The Liaoning is less advanced that even the USS Enterprise-class aircraft carrier, which was launched in the 1960s; from the perspective of combat experience, China is starting virtually from scratch, whereas the US already has almost a century’s worth of abundant practice. We can be optimistic that China will be able to rapidly compensate for this gap in experience and technological skill by developing in leaps and bounds. However, even if this is the case, the geographic characteristics of China’s continental-maritime complex mean that, in the long-run, China cannot continue to invest a large proportion of its resources in the navy and in aircraft carriers in a way similar to the US. On this issue, the interpretation of Andrew Erickson, professor at US Naval War College, is comparatively rational and objective. He believes that Chinese aircraft carriers will mainly be responsible for four tasks: protection of SLOCs, naval diplomacy, regional deterrence, in addition to humanitarian aid and disaster relief. [1]


Development of aircraft carriers is one part of China’s oceangoing strategy and represents a cornerstone of China’s progress toward blue water, international responsibility, and a global power, while it is not a counterweight to be used for the escalation of contests with neighboring countries or with the US. Coastal waters should not be the theater of China’s aircraft carriers, which in fact ought to make their mark in the western Pacific and northern Indian Oceans, adjacent to China. In view of China’s increasingly diverse range of combat platforms and options in the management of maritime disputes, some countries, which are engaged in disputes with China, unthinkingly criticize and condemn, while plainly grossly underestimating China’s ambitions with regard to aircraft carriers. Of course, China’s aircraft carrier program is unavoidably becoming the focus of speculation on “the China Threat theory”.



[1] Andrew Erickson: “A Work in Progress: China’s Development of Carrier Strike”, Jane’s Navy International, July/August 2014.

Hu Bo

Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University, and Director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). His areas of specialization include maritime strategy, international security, and Chinese diplomacy. He has written three books and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters on topics related to China’s maritime strategy and policy. His most recent books published in Chinese are as follows: China’s Maritime Power in 2049 (Beijing, China Development Press, 2015); China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era (Beijing, Ocean Press, 2018); and forthcoming: Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2019).