China needs at least three aircraft carriers in order to defend its interests, according to a general who spoke days after state media showed footage of China’s first aircraft carrier, the reconditioned Varyag.
“If we consider our neighbours, India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014,” General Luo Yuan, a senior researcher with the Academy of Military Sciences, was quoted as saying by Beijing News.
“So I think the number (for China) should not be less than three so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively.”
The general’s comments were published on Friday whilst on Wednesday China’s Defence Ministry said its first aircraft carrier would be used for “research, experiments and training” and would not affect its defensive naval strategy, in an apparent attempt to ease regional concerns that the vessel could be used to enforce Chinese territorial claims.
Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng, a Defence Ministry spokesman, also confirmed for the first time that Chinese pilots were training to operate from the carrier. He said it would, however, take a long time before the carrier became fully operational.
“Building an aircraft carrier is extremely complex and at present we are using a scrapped aircraft carrier platform to carry out refurbishment for the purposes of technological research, experiments and training,” Yansheng said, according to a Chinese transcript of a monthly Defence Ministry news conference.
The US Office of Naval Intelligence has estimated the vessel would be launched as a training platform by 2012 and be fully operational after 2015.
The United States on Friday welcomed China’s mention of the carrier, calling it a step toward better transparency between the Pacific powers, AFP reports.
Beijing believes that the three Japanese carriers it referred to, built for helicopter operations, could eventually be converted into full aircraft carriers.
China is steadily modernising its armed forces and is seeking to build up a carrier force over the coming decades. The Varyag, which a Chinese firm bought from the Ukraine in 1998 for US$20 million, is currently being refurbished by the Chinese navy in the port city of Dalian in northeast China and will be officially launched around October next year. It will most likely be followed by two completely indigenously built aircraft carriers. The cost of building a medium-sized conventionally powered, 60,000-tonne carrier similar to the Russian Kuznetsov class could exceed US$2 billion.
China will be the third Asian country to have a carrier after India and Thailand, something that has caused unease in the region.
China has only recently confirmed its carrier ambitions. Last month General Cheng Bingde, the Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, spoke about it at a news conference after meeting Mike Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Beijing.
The vessel is significant as it will give China, for the first time, the theoretical ability to project air power far from its shores, as well as providing crucial experience for developing its own, larger indigenous carriers.
In fact, China has already started work on its first completely indigenous aircraft carrier. Japan’s The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper recently reported that an officer in the Chinese military said China is constructing a fully indigenous carrier, and that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will soon have two operational carriers: the Varyag and the new vessel.
The newspaper quoted military sources close to developments in the Chinese Navy as saying that the domestically made carrier is being built in a shipyard on Changxing Island in Shanghai.
Security around the shipyard on Changxing Island has been significantly beefed up since the beginning of the year, which military sources attributed to the start of construction of the carrier.
The sources said the new carrier would most likely be a medium sized vessel, similar to the Varyag, and carry Jian-15 jet fighters, which China has developed from the Sukhoi Su-33. The fighters will likely take off from a ski jump-style flight deck as is done on the Varyag.
Although the new aircraft carrier is said to be modelled after the Varyag, military sources said China has acquired the technology to construct an aircraft carrier on its own. China has long studied foreign aircraft carriers and bought the blueprints for the Varyag along with the rest of the ship in 1998. Since 1985 China has acquired four retired aircraft carriers for study, including the Australian HMAS Melbourne and the ex-Soviet Minsk and Kiev.
Meanwhile, the US Defence Department’s 2010 report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” said China would be able to operate two or more aircraft carriers in the coming decade.
The experts quoted by The Yomiuri Shimbun said that China is also constructing destroyers with air-defence missiles to defend the carriers.
It would take China several decades to match the U.S.’s current carrier fleet of 11, but Beijing only needs a few to enhance its ability to deny U.S. forces access to waters around China in the event of a regional conflict, or to protect its shipping lanes and other perceived national interests overseas.
To be effective, at least two or three carriers are required, so that at least one can remain active while another undergoes repairs, and each active one requires its own carrier group including several other vessels, according to Chinese and foreign defence experts.
Yansheng said that a carrier could be used for offensive or defensive purposes as well as for disaster relief, and that China was pursuing its carrier program “in order to increase its ability to protect national security and world peace.”
“China’s firm adherence to a defensive national defence policy will not change because of the development of advanced weapons,” he said. “China’s naval strategy of inshore defence also has not changed.”
China’s carrier ambitions and maritime force projection will have implications for the Gulf of Aden region, as the PLAN currently has a task force of ships on station there to escort merchant ships through the pirate-infested waters.
The carrier will likely raise concerns in neighbouring countries, including Japan, whose ties with China have been strained over the Senkaku Islands; and Vietnam and the Philippines, which have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.