US responds to Chinese aircraft carrier with pointed question

Ask a silly question…

ABC features the Obama administration response as if – well, as if it deserves featuring:

As China’s first aircraft carrier takes to the open seas today for its inaugural sea trials, the U.S. government directed a pointed question at the Chinese military: Why would you need a warship like that?

“We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters today. “We have had concerns for some time and we’ve been quite open with them with regard to the lack of transparency from China regarding its power projection and its lack of access and denial of capabilities.” …

“We are prepared to be extremely transparent with regard to U.S. military positions and equipment, and we’d like to have a reciprocal relationship with China, and that’s what our presidents have said we ought to aspire to,” Nuland said. “Transparency in itself is a confidence builder between nations.”

That’ll fix their wagon, over there in Beijing.  Of course, the hazard of demanding an answer to a question is that you may get one.  The Channel News Asia website today quotes a piece from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, the state-run military news outlet, in which the author says the carrier should be used to “handle territorial disputes”:

“Why did we build it if we don’t have the courage and willingness to use the aircraft carrier to handle territorial disputes?” he asked in the article.

“It is reasonable to use the aircraft carrier or other warships to handle disputes if there is any need.

“The reason why we built a carrier is to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests more efficiently. We will be more confident and have more determination to defend our territorial integrity after we have carriers.”

A pointed question for the US administration would be: What did they think China’s purpose was in launching an aircraft carrier?  Does it really require explanation?  Why do nations usually put aircraft carriers in service?  (China didn’t actually build this one; the Russians did.  China finished it and fitted it out with combat systems.)

Another pointed question would be:  What obligation could China possibly have to account to the US for why she has put a carrier in her fleet?  China’s not an ally and is bound by no treaty requirement to explain the introduction of new aircraft carriers.  Why ask a question that can’t put China on the spot and only invites a destabilizing answer?

The PLA Daily piece is being linked fervently all over Asia.  In the wake of multiple warnings from Beijing to the rival maritime claimants in the South China Sea (most recent here), the PLA Daily statement about the purpose of the aircraft carrier looks pretty, well, pointed.

The new carrier, which according to some reports will be named Shi Lang, has just begun sea trials.  It still needs to conduct operational testing of all kinds, and integrate its airwing, before it is ready for combat deployments.  China officially debuted the J-15 strike-fighter that will form the core of the airwing earlier this year; the first photos of the prototype emerged in 2009-10, so it’s a new aircraft for the Chinese military and is still being shaken out itself.  The J-15 is based on the Russian Su-33, the follow-on to the Su-27 designed for the Admiral Kuznetsov-class ski-jump aircraft carrier.  (Russia has Admiral Kuznetsov in service; China’s new carrier is the ex-Varyag, the other unit of the class.)

A full combat complement for the airwing will probably be three squadrons of J-15s, or about 33 aircraft, plus support helicopters.  China is reportedly developing a fixed-wing air control and early warning (AEW) aircraft, to fill the role of the US E-2C Hawkeye, and if the ex-Varyag were to carry such an aircraft, that would mean fewer J-15s, as there is a capacity limit for airwing parking.  Integration of a fixed-wing, carrier-based AEW airframe may be delayed to the inauguration of the Chinese-designed, indigenously built aircraft carrier.

What these various details mean is that China will not be deploying a combat-ready aircraft carrier tomorrow.  Although the Chinese have sped up their typical timeline for operationalizing new capabilities, I would guess the ex-Varyag won’t be in combat service for at least another 15-18 months, and its capabilities will be limited.

That said, the “problem-set” for operationalizing ex-Varyag is of a different scope from that of the path to combat readiness for a US carrier.  The ex-Varyag will never have the capabilities of its US counterparts; its size and other limitations prevent that.  But it doesn’t have to have those capabilities to be a game-changer in Southeast Asia.  Much of what a US carrier totes with it everywhere – making it the famous “four and a half acres of sovereign US territory” – China can provide separately to the maritime battlespace from shore.  Distances are short in the South China Sea, and the Chinese build-up there huge.  China doesn’t need this carrier to attack and subjugate Taiwan, and couldn’t use it to project power at great distances – but it’s the ideal platform to “handle territorial disputes” with the Philippines or Vietnam.

It turns out there are stupid questions.  The Obama administration just asked one.  The good news is that there may be at least a reason, if not an excuse, for the apparent confusion.  The Chinese launched two aircraft carriers this week:  the other one is a luxury hotel in Tianjin, on the Yellow Sea coast in northern China.  The former-Soviet carrier Kiev, which China bought in 1996 to use as a recreational facility, has undergone a multi-million-dollar transformation into a luxury destination for the exotic-travel connoisseur.  There are reportedly five presidential suites, along with cheaper accommodations.  Room rates haven’t been published yet, but you can tour the Binhai Military Theme Park for a ticket cost of 110 yuan, or about $17 US.

China's other aircraft carrier. Photo Xinhuanet

For naval/carrier buffs, excellent pictorial history of ex-Varyag here.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.


30 thoughts on “US responds to Chinese aircraft carrier with pointed question”

  1. I figger, Kid, that you’re old enough now to have realized that sometimes questions are asked for reasons other than in attempt to alleviate ignorance.

    You knew that, right?

  2. We probably paid for most of it with our loan interest payments and that would probably pay for the airwing as well. Well worth it, if you ask me, what with all those vote purchasing entitlements and all.

    But, lack of transparency or not, let’s keep on fortifying their economy even if that happens at the expense of ours. After all, that’s what “good neighbors” do.


    1. lol, rafa.

      slash taxes for the top brackets, throw in some more tax cuts to get enough votes to pass the cut and borrow a trillion and more to pay for the Iraq invasion on top of the cost on the war that we actually needed to wage and had to borrow to fund…….and still it’s all about “entitlements”.


      1. lol times two, fuster.

        Give ’em stuff to insure their votes, squander the wealth earned off the sweat of somebody else’s brow and redistribute it to anyone that will vote for ‘ya. Spend money that we don’t have because it buys the crap that lives in Washington more and more power to…well…to squander some more of someone else’s hard earned money and it’s still about “the war”.


        1. it’s wasn’t “all about the war” it’s about the combination….hugely expensive wars have to be paid for and the money always get raised through extra taxation….this time around the wars came right after a big reduction in taxes and that’s why the the last admin ran up a freakin enormo deficit….

          and THEN the economy melted…..and the massive deficit increase from the stimulus spending…..

          1. Yeah…”and THEN the economy melted”.


            Bush inherited a couple of tax decreases from Clinton, something that the liberals were working hard to reverse. Bush actually cut taxes, even during the war. The economy is melting at a much more rapid pace now, after all the socialist policies that are being rammed down our throats, than it ever did from the “huge” war that liberals love to blame for everything from the rotting economy to the constant itch in their butts.

            When will it ever be Obama’s fault? After all, the credit rating happened during his lacking administration not “W’s”, who, I agree, was a spending fool too. Also, funny but the war is still being pursued by this guy; does that make the deficit HIS fault to you?

            Besides, great strides in income taxation and the introduction of income tax witholding, started in 1944 or 45 followed the favorite excuse du jur: war. But, what’s important to notice is that after all these wars were finished and the excuses concluded the taxes were never cancelled or reversed. Instead they were used to pay for…wait for it…wait for it…ENTITLEMENTS that were broke from before they even started.

            So, historically speaking, wars, which have been blamed for everything and recognized for nothing, have only provided a handy excuse for politicians to dig into our pockets and they serve to give liberal pacifists and isolationist Paulites a handy song to sing and a curtain to hide behind while they avoid the real issue: self-serving, power purchasing ENTITLEMENTS.

            Give everybody here, or, at least those with more than a modicum of gray matter, some credit and admit that your rationalizations are what they really are: left wing talking points inspired by the pseudo religious fervor of the liberals and the never quiet socialists of the nation and some pacifist isolationists from the Ron Paul camp (now, there’s common sense and reason for ‘ya!).

            1. —“but the war is still being pursued by this guy; does that make the deficit HIS fault to you?”—

              to an extant, yes…..Obama is most certainly responsible for the spending of his administration and for the continuation of the war in Af/Pak (which I support) and Yemen and the Horn (ditto) ….but the big lump is on the last admin. it’s rather an historical oddity that a country has large tax cuts and extensive warfare concurrently.

              and you’re still mixing together several very different things when you try to lay it too much of the deficit at the feet of entitlements.

              maybe it would help the argument along if you lay out some examples of the larger entitlements along with some cost figures.

  3. So the Chicoms are deploying an aircraft carrier that the Russians couldn’t afford to sail anymore? Or that they found useless for their purposes? Or was it just an excess property liquidation that they would have sent to Venezuela if the price was right? And if the Maoists are going to use the Varlag/Sha Ling as an intimidation device in the south Pacific, what will be the response of the intimidated ones? Isn’t Taiwan kind of an anchored aircraft carrier now? What’s the state of the Philippine armed forces today?

  4. I am sure that seeing the luxurious furnishings of the former carrier Kiev brought back fond memories from your active duty Navy tours.

    1. Especially the uniformed Chinese maids. (I thought the cow skin was a brilliant touch.)

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