Monday, January 27, 2014

Why China’s aircraft carrier program makes (some) sense

China’s interest in aircraft carriers is a strategic calculation based in the psychology of modern warfare

The reactions to what appeared to be theconfirmation last week that China has embarked on a program to build its own aircraft carrier were as varied as they were expected, ranging from alarmism to the usual dismissal of the large platforms as little more than hugely expensive boats for enemy target practice. While carriers do indeed have severe vulnerabilities, they are not without their uses, though those are a function of the role(s) they are expected to play. 

The first role is more psychological than utilitarian. There is no doubt that China’s domestic program is directly related to the country’s desire to be regarded as a major power, of which aircraft carriers, warts notwithstanding, serve as an undeniable symbol. Although the acquisition of the ex-Varyag, its eventual refurbishment, and its rechristening as the Liaoning following its entry into service, provided a major boost to China’s self-image, the platform nevertheless served as reminder of China’s reliance on external assistance. For that reason alone, a domestic carrier will help China cross a very important psychological barrier and signal to the world that it is now a major and, perhaps more importantly, self-sufficient power. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

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