Dragon's Dragonfly: The Chinese Aircraft Carrier

Vijay Sakhuja, Research Fellow, IDSA


There is little doubt that People's Republic of China is engaged in an aggressive naval acquisition programme aimed at modernisation of the PLA Navy. A variety of advanced ships, submarines, aircraft, missiles and electronic warfare equipment have been added to the naval inventory. These acquisitions have been a matter of concern among several Asia Pacific countries who fear that China is building an aggressive naval posture to influence events in the region. Some have even suggested that the modernisation process has heightened regional anxiety and raised tensions. The ongoing naval acquisition clearly indicates that China is pursuing an assertive maritime policy. Towards that end the debate over acquisition of an aircraft carrier has become central in the minds of Chinese naval strategists and practitioners.

It is no more a secret that Beijing is keen on acquiring an aircraft carrier. This keenness is familiar to even the most casual China watcher. Interestingly, the 'dragonfly'1 has touched the hearts of both the leadership and the general public who have even suggested that if China wants to be a great power, it must possess an aircraft carrier. A review of events over the past two decades indicate that Chinese naval planners have been window shopping for an aircraft carrier in the 'shopping malls' in Latin America, Australia, Europe and Russia. Besides the indigenous capability to build the vessel is also being explored which has added to the 'build' or buy' debate. Whether China' builds' or 'buys' an aircraft carrier, the question still remains how the induction will influence the balance of naval power and the security environment in the Asia Pacific region.

This paper examines the Chinese aircraft carrier acquisition plans. In doing so, it discusses in detail the various vessels that China has purchased as scrap and those that it has been interested in. The paper also highlights the type of aircraft carrier that fits into the Chinese naval doctrine and efforts made by the PLA Navy in training its officers for carrier operations. The acquisition of the carrier is bound to change the strategic balance in the Asia Pacific region. Towards that end, the paper highlights the implications of such acquisition on the regional security environment as also its implications for Indian security.

Aircraft Carrier in Strategic Thought

The Chinese naval strategists and practitioners have long argued that an aircraft carrier is an important element of any blue water naval force structure. Without the carrier, any ocean going taskforce is limited in its area of operation, due to non-availability of air cover. They argue that a carrier with 40 aircraft on board can provide the combat effectiveness of about 200 to 800 shore based fighters for air defence. Besides, the carrier is able to provide cover at least fifty times larger than that provided by any other surface combatant. 2 In the context of China, with territories extending as far as one thousand nautical miles in South China Sea, the relevance of an aircraft carrier becomes all the more important.

Admiral Liu Huaquing, the Chinese 'Mahan' or 'Gorshkov' and erstwhile Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission has long cherished the dream of the PLA Navy acquiring an aircraft carrier. He was quoted as saying " I'll die with an everlasting regret if China does not build an aircraft carrier".3 A man of vision and the architect of the modern day Chinese navy, Admiral Liu Huaquing even started the 'pilot warship captains' course in Gungzhou Naval Academy for command of surface ships.4 Rear Admiral, Yao, President, Guangzhou Naval Academy, had noted that:

" …….Since the Second World War, aircraft carriers as the symbol of a country's important deterrent power have been accorded more attention. For some historical reasons, China has not yet built aircraft carriers……..As the building process is long, we simply cannot afford to dig wells after being thirsty."5

Since the 1980s, China watchers have been speculating that China was building an aircraft carrier. In 1987, Colonel General Xu Xing, Deputy Chief of General Staff denied such speculation and argued that Chinese military strategy was one of defence and such power projection platforms do not find any place in the naval force structure.6 Interestingly, there is an anecdotal evidence that Deng Xiaoping was also not keen that China should possess an aircraft carrier.7 But it appears that in 1992, he had reluctantly approved the plan to design and build a carrier in China.8 President Yang Shangkun also appears to have asked the General Staff Department of the CMC to procure an aircraft carrier and 'make it functional by 1997'.9 By 1993, the Chinese naval leadership made public their plans on research and development on the carrier and that the construction had not started at that time.10 In 1995, Yomiuri Shimbhun, a Japanese daily reported that the Chinese leadership had decided to build the aircraft carrier. Two carriers were planned to be built over the next ten years begining 1996. 11

Be that as it may, Chinese naval officers have been most vocal about the utility of an aircraft carrier both as a political instrument and power projection platform. In an article titled' The Dream of Chinese Aircarft Carrier', Captain Cao Xuegui, PLA Navy (Commanding Officer of Luda class destroyer Pennant No.108) noted that a mobile 'battlefield on the sea' is an important component of the Chinese naval task force for the defence of Chinese territory in South China Sea. He observed that with limited air cover, the task force would be dangerously exposed to the enemy fighter aircraft. Therefore building an aircraft carrier is a necessity.12 Similar arguments have been put forward by the Commanding Officer of a PLA Navy frigate Pennant No.537.

"…..It is a top priority to build or import aircraft carriers and this necessity is not man made, but arises from the realistic situation of War……. It still required quite a long period of time before this goal can be reached……"13

More recently, the Chinese public has been in favour of building an aircraft carrier. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on May 8, 1999 appears to have generated enough passion in support of acquisition of an aircraft carrier or its construction. The South China Morning Post reported that a retired PLA soldier, surnamed 'Li" writing under the name of "Bingmeizi" - 'sister soldier' posted a rousing message on a Shengdu, Henan, web site calling all Chinese around the world to contribute to the construction of the world's largest and most advanced aircraft carrier to enhance China's defence capability.14 What followed was a flurry of support messages in the internet chat rooms in China. Responding to these sentiments, a local daily published special editions to raise funds for the carrier. Added to that the local television began broadcasting stories at regular intervals. Reportedly, the atmosphere was so charged that contributions began pouring in ranging from 99 Yuan by a young girl named Li Fan to 10 million Yuan from a company in Anyang in Henan, China. In about a months time, the total contribution added up to 11 million Yuan.15

In this context, the China Science and Technology Association noted, "The fact that China is the only permanent UN Security Council member with no aircraft carrier battle group is a handicap which fails to match China's status". It also published a book 'The 21st Century : China's Super Aircraft Carrier', and argued for modernisation of the military through indigenous efforts and not through imports.16

The calls for building an aircraft carrier have been around for almost two decades now. It appears that the bombing incident has to some extent acted as a catalyst for fulfilling the Chinese desire to dominate regional affairs. They believe that an aircraft carrier is a symbol of China's rightful place in the world order and these war islands not only fulfill the military role but send a message similar to the one that Chinese emperors sent to tributary states. "China is a great power. Tremble and obey!!"17

An article in a PLA daily, stressed the need for an aircraft carrier and noted, 'History has proved time and again (that) without air domination over the seas there will be no control over the seas…… An aircraft carrier is a mobile station indispensable for naval airforce '. It also noted that 'whether or not to have an aircraft carrier is not merely an issue of equipment but, in the final analysis, one of whether to have air control over the seas and whether to become a sea power'.18

Admiral Shi Yunsheng, the current PLA Navy Commander-in-Chief, on March 19, 1992, stated that, " in order (to) effectively control and protect the air over the South China Sea, we must give priority to air capable of long distance battle and to carrier based aircraft". 19 Admiral Shi was then the Naval Air Force Commander of the South Sea Fleet and was making these observations in the wake of the Sino-Vietnam clash in the Spratly Islands in South China Sea. The Chinese naval practitioners are convinced that an aircraft carrier is essential for the Chinese navy to go to the oceans and an aircraft carrier should be the priority and that this is in the national interest.

Some Chinese naval experts point out that Brazil, Argentina and India are three of the largest debtor nations in the world but still possess or hope to acquire aircraft carriers.20 Interestingly, India has often figured in the Chinese debate over acquisition of an aircraft carrier. They argue that India has a smaller navy but has two aircraft carriers. The argument over the high costs of building are dismissed by noting that India is not that rich but it is really an issue of 'sea mentality'.21

Shopping for a Carrier

The Chinese appear to be patient but vigorous window shoppers. At least this is true as far as aircraft carriers are concerned. In the last two decades, they have stepped into the carrier shopping malls in Latin America, Europe, Russia, Australia and even India.22 They received positive response from several of them who were willing to either sell or build for China. Surprisingly, they did not make inquiries with the US and UK. They must have been confident that the US would never allow such a sale since it would result in a change in the US monopoly in politico-military power. This is further corroborated by the fact that the US has decided to scrap the 52,000 ton aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea on its own soil by an American firm.23 As far as UK is concerned, the Australians offered them the alternate route in the form of the HMAS Melbourne.

Argentina—Vienticinco de Mayo

Perhaps the first concrete example of Chinese acquisition of an aircraft carrier , albeit in its scrap form, was from Argentina. This Colossus class carrier had flown the ensign of two countries before being commissioned in the Argentine navy. It was built in 1945 for the Royal navy . Later it was sold to the Royal Netherlands navy in 1948 before its final sale to Argentina. During its service in the Argentine navy, it was modernised to allow for operations of Super Etendard aircraft. Since 1985 it had not been operational and was scrapped in 1997. The Chinese had bid for the sale of the vessel as scrap but the deal did not fructify.24


China purchased decommissioned HMAS Melbourne from Australia in 1985, as scrap for $1.4 billion.25 The vessel was originally built for the Royal Navy to be named as HMS Majestic. Its keel was laid on April 15, 1943 at Vickers Barrow, UK. By the time World War II ended, the vessel had still been under construction. Keeping in mind the future requirements of the Royal Navy, the Admiralty appears to have decided to stop building it any further. But, by 1949 the work on the vessel had been resumed and its design modified to include angled deck, steam catapult and a mirror deck landing system.26

The vessel was finally commissioned in the Royal Australian navy as HMAS Melbourne on October 28, 1955 at Barrow-in-Furnam, UK. It was the longest serving flagship of the Australian Navy.27 During its thirty year service it picked up for itself the title of 'cursed ship' as it was involved in two major collisions with HMAS Voyager and USS Frank E Evan.28 On June 30, 1982, it was placed under reserve. At that time, the Australian navy had plans to purchase the HMS Invincible from Britain but the Falkland war in 1982 appears to have forced Britain to cancel its sale. The Australian plans to decommission Melbourne were delayed and it remained inactive till 1985. It was finally towed from Sydney to be broken up in south China.

The Chinese showed special interest in equipment such as catapults, arrestor wires and aircraft lifts / elevators. The flight deck was dismantled and put ashore and PLA navy pilots undertook deck landing practices on the removed deck. Melbourne was in existence till as late as 1994.29


Chinese interests, however, were not only confined to learning from the Australian example. They also started seriously studying aircraft carrier models of other countries. For instance a high level Chinese military delegation headed by Admiral Liu Huaquing, Vice Chairman, Central Military Commission visited France in late September 1996.30 Among the several issues of discussions between the two sides, the Chinese delegation showed keen interest in the French aircraft carriers. At that time the French navy was operating two carriers—Clemenceau and Foch. These Clemenceu class aircraft carriers were the first of the French carriers to be built in France after World War II. The construction for the vessels began in the 1950s and they were commissioned in the 1960s (Clemenceau in 1961 and Foch in 1963) as project PA-54 and PA-55.31 These vessels were scheduled to be decommissioned in 1997 and 2000 respectively.

Clemenceau was deployed for several combat tours of duty : Djibouti (1974), Lebanon (1983), Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War (1991), and Yugoslavia (1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996). During the Iran -Iraq war, the ship cruised 80,000 nautical miles and its aircraft flew 11,000 hours and made 5000 deck landings.32 The French Navy was not keen to sell the Clemenceau to China. The officials were quoted as saying that the sale would send wrong signals of France supporting a totalitarian regime with a poor human rights record. They were convinced that the carrier would ultimately be used in operations against Taiwan for unification with mainland China.33 They also feared that the proposed sale would draw criticism from Taiwan, which had earlier purchased La Fayette class frigates. Responding to the likely sale of the French carrier to China, Taiwanese authorities expressed concern arguing that the proposed sale would result in deterioration of the regional security environment and lead to an undesired arms race.34

Notwithstanding that and the 1989 post-Tianenmen Square arms embargo, Paris was keen to go ahead with the sale of the Clemenceau. French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette told Admiral Liu Huaquing that 'European arms embargo against China is out dated and should be lifted'. 35 The French on their part were exploring loopholes to circumvent the embargo and facilitate sale as 'gift' and sell only non lethal electronic systems. The sale did not materialise and the vessel was decommissioned to be scrapped in France in 1997. 36 However, it was reported that along with the technology transfer related to French Dauphin and Super Frelon helicopters to China, the French also agreed to train Chinese in operating aircraft carriers.

Interestingly, Brazil had shown interest in Clemenceau. More recently, Foch, the other Clemeneau class vessel, due to be decommissioned in 2000 made a port call at Rio de Janerio after exercises with the Indian navy in February 2000. 37 Reportedly, the vessel is likely to be sold to Brazil.

Russia—Varyaag (ex Riga)

Talk that China has acquired the Varyaag has persisted for a very long time. It is true that Chinese officials inspected the vessel in 1992 but failed to agree with the Ukrainian authorities on the price. At that time the vessel was seventy per cent complete. This 67,000 ton, 307 meters long vessel was originally designed for the Soviet Navy and had been under construction since 1985. In fact the original name of the vessel was Riga but following the anti-Soviet demonstrations in the city of Riga, the name of the vessel was changed to Varyaag.38

By 1996, the condition of the vessel had deteriorated considerably. It was in the dock in the Black Sea shipyard of Nikolayev.39 It lacked maintenance and was totally exposed to weather and remained unattended. Notwithstanding that, the Chinese had preferred to purchase the vessel as scrap and study its architecture. It was also believed that Chinese naval designers would be able to obtain significant information by taking the vessel apart. Importantly, they wanted to study lifts, wiring and piping. Reportedly, these are the weak areas in Chinese shipbuilding. Interestingly, the vessel was purchased by a Chinese shell company. Chong Lot Tourist and Amusement Agency, a typical Chinese trading house, located in Macao put in its bid in August 1997 to purchase the vessel as scrap.

Among the six bids, the Chinese company submitted the best offer of $600 per ton of steel . This price was at least three times the normal scrap price for similar tonnage ships. The vessel weighed about 33,600 tons in its unfinished condition and totaled to about $20 million.40 Chong Lot pledged to turn the vessel into a hotel or an amusement center and was able to satisfy the Ukrainian National Agency for Reconstruction and European Integration. The agency stated that the commission had a certificate from the company (Chong Lot) which showed that the tourist firm plans did not run counter to the conditions. The Portuguese authorities in Macao responded that they had not received any request/permission for opening a hotel on a ship to be based in Macao and dismissed it as a joke.41 Now that Macao has been handed over to China and unified with the mainland, Chong Lot is free to do what it pleases with the vessel. The ploy to buy Varyaag as an amusement center appears to have worked in purchasing the vessel but it is still debatable what the Chinese would do with the vessel. The vessel is still sitting in Nikolayev and rusting. It is doubtful if it is sea worthy to take a long voyage from Black Sea to South China. A satellite imagery taken by the US in 1995 showed that the ship's ammunition elevator was open. 42 It is beyond doubt that the material state of the hull is poor. Even if the vessel is towed to China, it would be scrapped but the naval architects could study it in detail.


While the Chinese were busy negotiating for the Varyaag, a Korean business man purchased Minsk at a bargain price in 1995.43 The key equipment had been removed. Minsk was the flagship of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. This 47,000 ton, 273 meter long vessel was the fifth largest carrier in the world and entered service in 1978. In 1988-89 it had developed major machinery problems and was laid up alongside. Financial constraints did not permit the Soviets to undertake repairs and lack of maintenance forced them to consider its sale.44

Three years after its sale to Korea, the vessel was sold as scrap to SZ Minsk Aircraft Carrier Industrial Co. of China for $5 million.45 After 18 months of refit in Guangzhou, the vessel was converted into a military theme park titled 'Minsk World' and given the theme 'war and peace'. All external weapon systems like surface to air missile launchers, anti-submarine missile containers and guns have been retained. According to Wu Bin, the General Manager of S.Z. International Tourism Corporation, Minsk would attract military fans and school students and the carrier itself can arouse curiosity among the people.46 The Chinese believe that this would provide an opportunity for education in science and national defence. The important aspect of the refurbishment of Minsk is that the Chinese shipbuilding experts and architects have learnt more about building such large complex platforms and have improved upon their knowledge obtained from Melbourne scrapping. Interestingly, the Chinese have retained the vessel's original name, i.e. Minsk and the weapon systems . This certainly symbolises the growing Sino- Russian relations.


As with other Russian/Ukrainian carriers, the Chinese have taken keen interest in the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. This is the largest warship ever built by Russia or the erstwhile Soviet Union. Kuznetsov is in the real sense a 'defensive aircraft carrier'.47 The plan to build this vessel began with 80,000 tons standard displacement but ended up with 55,000 tons. The nuclear propulsion was shelved for boiler turbine engines. Similarly, the originally planned four catapults were abandoned and a twelve degree ski jump was fitted.48 The absence of catapults precluded her aircraft carrying a large pay-load. The vessel is not a true carrier by western definition and can be termed as 'heavy air capable' cruiser. 49 Chinese appear to have liked the concept and reports indicate that a similar vessel under code name Plan 9985 is expected to be built at the Shanghai-Jiangnan Shipyard.50 Further, the likely tonnage of the vessel is expected to be 48,000 tons.

Spain—Empresa Nacional (Bazan)

In their pursuit to acquire an aircraft carrier, the Chinese even explored the possibility of purchasing a new vessel instead of buying either a scrapped or second hand vessel. Empresa Nacional of Spain offered China two designs of low cost, light, conventional take off and landing carriers with capacity to house 21 aircraft and four helicopters. It offered to build a carrier of 16,000 tons similar to the Thailand carrier Chakri Nerubet.

The design appears to have found favour with the Thai Navy who placed an order for one such vessel on Empresa Nacional . Reportedly this contract of $358 million was accepted against contenders in Great Britain, France, Italy and the USA.51 The highlights of the contract were the price, technology and production time of only five years. It has a ski jump of 12 degrees and is capable of hosting six Sea Harriers and 12 helicopters. The most important feature of the vessel is that it offers the best ratio between dead weight tonnage and aircraft weight.52 In 1995, China contacted Bazan shipyard for supply of design drawings of the aircraft carrier. The Chairman of Bazan shipyard Edwardo Abellan visited China and offered to build the vessel.53 The two sides held talks but it resulted in nothing definite. Reportedly, China inspected the Thai Chakri Nerubet, possibly attempting to capitalise on Thailand's economic crisis. The vessel had not been put to sea for sometime due to economic constraints and is currently open to visitors as a tourist attraction.54

Naval Doctrine and Aircraft Carrier

Before proceeding to examine the relevance of aircraft carriers in the Chinese naval doctrine, it would be important to locate this power projection platform in the operational doctrine of the United States, Japan, Europe (UK and France) and Soviet Union/Russia where such vessels have been built/deployed. The United States and Japan were the first and the only countries to have deployed carrier based air power. Both were faced with a vast oceanic area of operation. The Pacific Ocean lacked islands/bases capable of supporting large land and air forces. This geographical constraint forced both the US and Japanese navies to acquire aircraft carriers that were self contained, flexible for operations on land and capable of surprise attacks on the enemy fleets/bases. They could also undertake long range reconnaissance and possessed enough capability for defence in the form of escorts. With the emergence of aircraft carriers on the scene, the relevance of battleship as the most powerful platform became suspect. This resulted in development of large aircraft carriers capable of hosting 50 to 100 aircraft.

On the other hand, the European experience was much different. During the pre-war period, the threat of land based air power dominated the minds of naval planners. With a large number of land based bombers in the inventory, the aircraft carriers were perceived to be vulnerable and restricted in offensive role. Land based air power was considered enough to achieve sea control. The British used their carriers in supportive role to locate German commerce raiders and attack them with torpedoes. Since these vessels were in supportive role, they were not fitted with offensive weaponry.

The Soviet tactical exploitation doctrine of their aircraft carriers was developed over more than half a century. Based on the 'active offshore defence' theory, the Soviets formulated 'blishaya pulogulama' or the 'great plan' and advocated building a large naval force comprising aircraft carriers, modern warships, naval airforce and a marine corps.55 After World War II, under Stalin, the plans to build a large ocean going navy were given the go ahead. The plan continued well but under Khruschev a high priority was accorded to the strategic rocket force or the 'second artillery' and nuclear submarine.56 The rationale for this prioritisation was that aircraft carriers were susceptible to attack from sophisticated long range missiles. Besides, should there be shortage of funds when developing 'balanced fleet', only the nuclear submarines had the capability to provide the desired deterrence.57

In contrast to the limited naval capabilities of the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s, as exemplified in its weakness to play an active oceanic role and assert itself in the bipolar naval conflicts of the period, Soviet naval strategy from the 1970s pushed forward the aircraft carriers as one of its instruments in global power projection. The Soviets built/ planned at least five different classes of aircraft carriers. These are (a) Moskva class, 1967 (b) Orel class,1973 (c) Kiev class, 1975 (d) Kuznetsov class (e) Ul'yanovsk class 199?/2000.58 Only three i.e. Moskva , Kiev and Kuznetsov class were finally constructed. Under Admiral SG Gorshkov, the Soviet navy had three distinct mission roles (a) ship to ship attacks (b) defending Soviet strategic nuclear forces (c) defend Soviet SLOCs and destroy enemy SLOCs.59 These tasks envisaged a high degree of anti-submarine warfare, targeting at sea and destruction of targets on land. The Moscow class aircraft carrier had the tactical task of defending nuclear submarines and SLOCs and undertaking interdiction of enemy SLOCs. Accordingly Moscow was fitted with ASW helicopters and variable depth sonars to hunt submarines. The Kiev class had the tactical task of anti submarine operations, attacking strategic targets like aircraft carrier at sea and destroying strategic infrastructure on land and naval facilities. These ambitious tasks also called for a commensurate weapon load on board these carriers. The Minsk was fitted with SS-N-12 (range 555 kilometers) SUW-N-1 anti submarine missiles and air defence missiles.60 The Varyaag class aircraft carrier had an even more ambitious tactical task as compared to the earlier carrier. It was to use its long range anti-ship, anti-air missiles for the classical role of destroying enemy, as also cooperate with missile cruisers, SSGNs and SSBN's to completely destroy the enemy's aircraft carriers and SSGNs.61 On the basis of the above discussion, it is clear that each class of Russian aircraft carrier had a specific task to play and the development of aircrafts carrier was based on 'incremental tactical/strategic role'.

Though there are several political and ideological differences between the two regimes, the Chinese navy too appears to have followed the Soviet ' balishaya pulogulana' based on the development of modern warship, a naval airforce and a marine corps. Like the Soviets, the Chinese also laid emphasis on development of strategic forces and submarines. But unlike the Soviets, China has taken a long time to build aircraft carriers. This is not to suggest that aircraft carriers did not have any relevance in the Chinese naval strategy.

Since its establishment on July 23, 1949, the Chinese navy (Jiefangjun haijun) pursued a coastal defence strategy under the 'Peoples War' doctrine. Neither its objectives nor its capabilities allowed it to go beyond coastal waters. It was not required to wage a decisive war. However, by the mid 1970s, China's strategic thinking had changed significantly and in Deng Xiaoping's doctrine of 'peoples war under modern condition' and 'military strategy of active defence under high-tech historical conditions' the navy had a major role to play. In 1982, Admiral Liu Huaquing, a former student of Voroshilov Naval Institute in Soviet Union assumed the command of the PLA Navy. Admiral Lui argued that sea power is a crucial element of China's efforts in attaining great power status and maritime issues were extremely important. China needed to build a modern navy to safeguard its maritime interests. Liu articulated the 'offshore active defence' concept and noted that offshore was an idea relative to the high seas and the navy should effectively exercise control of the seas within the first island chain (Alleutions, Kuriles, Japanese archipelago, Ryukyus, Taiwan, Philippines and the Great Sunda islands).62 This called for acquisition of high technology and modern naval equipment.

Admiral Zhang Lian Zhong, succeeded Admiral Liu (the latter was elevated to Vice Chairman CMC). Admiral Zhang noted that to defend China truly and effectively from raids and attacks from the sea (China) must strengthen the defence in depth at sea and possess naval forces that have the capability to intercept and wipe out the enemy.63 This called for power projection platforms because only such vessels had the endurance, weapons and capacity to operate far from the home ports in to blue waters. The Chinese believe that in order to wrest control of distant territories and safeguarding maritime zones, China should build platforms to effectively safeguard their maritime interests.

Given these tasks, and the new operational thinking, the PLA Navy has its role cut out to safeguard national offshore territories, exclusive economic zones, unification of Taiwan, strengthening of China's coastal defence and deterrence. Accordingly, the acquisition of an aircraft carrier is the crux and a symbol of the PLA Navy's blue water strategy.64 They argue that aircraft carriers are the only means of providing air cover to an ocean going task force . According to the long cast of naval force structure and tactical roles, the PLA Navy task forces will be headed by aircraft carriers and form 'a three dimensional system of attack and defence with air, surface and submarine attachment'.65

A Doctrinal Appreciation

The Chinese naval experts are of the opinion that the size, shape, propulsion, aircraft and the weapon outfit of the aircraft carrier will be determined by the country's naval strategy which should be in compliance with the overall military and economic strategy reflecting 'Chinese characteristics'.66 Admiral Liu Huaqing has articulated the extent of the 'first island chain' and the 'second island chain'. Besides most naval experts have argued that the PLA Navy needs an aircraft carrier to provide air cover to the fleet operating in South China Sea. This has been emphasised by Admiral Shi Yunsheng, the present Commander-in-Chief of the PLA Navy. Some naval experts have noted that the carrier will facilitate operations against Taiwan. Besides the American deployment of aircraft carriers in all major crises in the Taiwan Straits in 1958 and 1996 is one of the most important factors in Chinese thinking.

If this be the thinking, then neither the Varyaag nor Minsk or for that matter any other Russian carriers have any relevance in the Chinese naval doctrine. These vessels were conceived by the Soviet/Russian navy in a different strategic/tactical context. Their ability to host long range missiles such as SS-N-12 , operations in conjunction with SSBNs and SSGNs and their ability to attack targets on land , clearly highlight their role far beyond simple air cover to a fleet operating far from home. The current Chinese naval doctrine has no such role as performed by the Soviet/Russian carriers.

It can be argued that China will build two types of aircraft carriers: (a) light CTOL carrier of 20,000 to 25,000 tons for operations within the first island chain and (b) heavy duty carrier of 40,000 to 50,000 tons equipped with long range missiles with capability to operate with SSBNs. This would call for redefining the naval doctrine and area of operation, currently restricted to the first island chain. You Xu and You Ji have noted that in the second phase of the development (2001 to 2020), the PLA Navy 'would gradually break away from the west Pacific and enter the oceans around the world' . Beyond 2020, China would have the capability of a major sea power.67

'Build or Buy' Debate

Captain Cao Xuegui, Commanding Officer of Pennant No.108 'Luda' class destroyer advocates building a 15,000 ton light duty, nuclear power driven carrier with combat aircraft, ship to ship missiles, ship to air missile, automatic 100 mm gun , 30 mm close in weapon system, advance electronic warfare equipment and modern C3I suite.68 You Xu and You Ji believe that if China builds an aircraft carrier it will be similar to the British Invincible type of 20,000 to 40,000 tons. They further argue that it would be easy for China to define the vessel as defensive and intended solely for safeguarding maritime territory.69

Reports about China building an aircraft carrier indigenously have appeared in the media for quite some time. Some of these appear to be part of western propaganda while there are some reports that quote documentary evidence. For instance it was reported that a huge hole was observed at Dalian. It ultimately turned out to be the Dalian new shipbuilding dock and subsequent inquiries revealed that the Dalian new dock had orders to build 120,000 ton vessels for Norway.70 It was also reported that the carrier-building programme was listed as a key project in the 8th Five Year Plan.71 Recent reports suggest that Beijing has plans to build a conventional carrier (Plan 9985) with a displacement of 48,000 tons. The vessel will be powered by TB 12 steam turbines with a maximum speed of 30 knots. The vessel is to be launched in 2003. Interestingly, the report notes that China will build one aircraft carrier every three years.72

There is little doubt that the PLA Navy will acquire an aircraft carrier. The debate however is 'build' or 'buy'. Aircraft carriers, by their very nature are technology intensive platforms. They host complex systems such as catapults, landing gear, lifts/elevators to move aircraft from hangar to deck and back and a reinforced landing deck/ski jump. Such technologies are not easily available in the international market. As regards shipbuilding, China ranks third in the world and has the capability to build larger vessels over 100,000 tons. It also has a long experience of building warships and submarines but non availability of specialist equipment will delay construction or may even force China to purchase the complete vessel from a foreign source.

Budgetary Constraints

Another impediment in the acquisition of the carrier is the huge cost attached to it. Going by current prices, the cost of building a carrier is about $4.0 to 4.5 billion Yuan. According to some Chinese, budgetary consideration may not be so important since it is the political determination that will dictate allocation of financial resources for the vessel. Some unconfirmed reports even suggest that up to three billion Yuan i.e. 2 to 3 percent of the PLA's budget with a daily operating cost of 300,000 Yuan has been earmarked.

Professor Zhang Zhaozhong, a military expert at the National University of Defence Technology noted that to build an aircraft carrier involved an expenditure equivalent to six to seven years budget of the PLA. He stated, "…. Even if our army did not eat, buy new clothing or equipment for six to seven years we would still not be able to afford one Nimitz".73 A Chinese naval military equipment expert responded by noting," We should not calculate the cost of aircraft carriers this way because all building expenses in China would be cheaper. By some estimates it would be closer to 1:1 i.e. what the US can do with one dollar, China can do with one renminbi".74

While there are others who argue that when it was poor, China could afford to spend 1.3 billion Yuan on space programme, it can certainly afford to build a carrier. Since the building process is long, the breakdown cost per year will not be 'unbearably high'.75 As noted earlier, the vessel under Plan 9985 is expected to cost 4.8 billion renminbi (US$580.41 million) . The first phase building fund of 1.0 billion renminbi (US$120.92 million) has already been approved.76


As noted earlier, in 1995, Admiral Liu Huaquing ordered the establishment of a special course for naval pilots to train them to command warships. The course is linked to the command of an aircraft carrier. The Chinese appear to draw inspiration from the US Navy practice appointing naval pilots to their aircraft carriers.77 Rear Admiral Yao was quoted as saying that the Guangzhao naval academy would train experts needed for carriers.

In the past, Chinese Naval airforce (NAF) pilots have undertaken short range take off and landing on roads. Reportedly, the deck of Melbourne was also used by Chinese Naval Air Force pilots to practice deck landing. In 1987, the PLA Navy has even experimented with F-8 II in catapult launch mode. 78 Similarly, Ka 27 helicopters have completed deck landing on Luhu class destroyers.

Earlier China acquired Su 27 aircraft from Russia with license to produce up to 500 aircraft at its factory in Xian. The Russian navy already operates Su 27 K, the naval version of Su 27, on its carriers. There is every likelihood that Chinese naval pilots have already completed training on board the Russian carrier. Besides, the PLA navy has also built a simulated flying deck at an airport in northern China. The Melbourne deck was used as reference and an indigenously built 'optical landing system' has been fitted.79

Regional Security Environment

The Chinese are determined to possess an aircraft carrier. All trends, indicators and articulations point to the fact that the Dragon's ' Dragonfly' will be a reality in the near future. It is bound to generate anxiety and tension among the regional countries. Similarly, the regional security architecture will undergo a major transformation and alter the strategic balance. The Chinese leaders make no secret of their desire to become a major power and unlike Japan, are developing both economic and military capability to influence events in the region.

There is a logical temptation among the Republics of Korea, Japan and Taiwan to acquire aircraft carriers and offset the imbalance that would be created by the 'Dragonfly'. A Japanese defence official has argued that Tokyo needed 'small defensive' aircraft carriers of 25,000 tons to defend the sea lanes that serve as its umbilical cord.80 In an interview, Rear Admiral Chiaki Hayashizaki , Director of Operations and Planning of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force stated that Japan's defence policy did not exclude the possibility of building small aircraft carriers.81

The acquisition of an aircraft carrier by China will certainly fuel an arms race. Reportedly, the Republic of Korea navy already has plans to acquire at least two aircraft carriers. With a highly sophisticated shipbuilding industry, Korea has the technological capability to build complex platforms such as aircraft carriers. Besides the western 'carrier malls' will be more than willing to meet the demands of any other navy in the Asia Pacific region. This would act as a catalyst in the carrier acquisition race. Thailand navy acquired the Chakri Nerubet and sent out a signal that it was joining the elite club of carrier nations and assuming the role of military leadership in the region. Besides, strategic planners in Bangkok have reportedly cited the rise of Indian naval power as a reason for Thailand's naval modernisation and expansion. A possibility of increased interest by Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines cannot be ruled out.

Implications for India

China's recent rise as an important trading state, its high economic growth, rising defence budget, military modernisation and also its relative importance in the international forum, raise questions about its regional objectives. The assessments cover a wide spectrum of future Chinese ambitions. But the recent Chinese response to various issues relating to sovereignty, security and national integrity are only reflective of Chinese intentions. It is an ambitious power out to acquire capabilities to dominate regional affairs and stake its claim as the rightful regional force.

China has long understood the strategic importance of the Malacca Strait. Malacca has figured in the strategic thinking of their ancient mariners. The Strait continues to dominate the commercial and economic lifelines of the Asia-Pacific region, and this reality is of increasing importance to China. China's naval and military surge into the Indian Ocean is a major strategic priority of planners in Beijing. The surge is aimed at consolidating the Chinese military posture in support of its maritime interests. In 1993, Gen Zhao Nanqi, Director of the General Logistic Department of the PLA, issued a top secret memorandum which explained in detail the PLA's strategic plans to consolidate control over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean under the new doctrine of 'high sea defence'. Zhao stated, " We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians". Beijing has no doubts that its neighbours would oppose China's strategic surge. "We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account", Zhao stated in his top-secret memorandum.82

As noted earlier , in the naval realm, the PLA Navy has defined its role within the framework of its 'offshore active defense' strategy. No conclusive definition was given regarding the extent of 'offshore'. Admiral Liu Huaqing, then Commander, PLA Navy, gave his interpretation of the concept of 'offshore' and noted that 'offshore' should not be interpreted as coastal; instead 'offshore' is a concept relative to the 'high seas'. While referring to the Great Sunda Islands, the Chinese 'Mahan', Admiral Huaquing, had included the strategic choke point of the Malacca Strait in his strategic calculations.

China has long been seeking an outlet into the Indian Ocean in furtherance of its bid for the rich mineral resources of Asia, oil from the Persian Gulf and the markets of the region. Besides China is well aware of the strategic choke points of Southeast Asia. Towards that end, China has begun making inroads into the Indian Ocean and has begun to encircle the Malacca Strait as also India, which it perceives as a possible containment force. Geographically, the South China Sea in the east and India and Indonesia in the west dominate the approaches to the Malacca Strait . China has begun to neutralise the domination of both India and Indonesia by making diplomatic, military and economic inroads into Myanmar. Myanmar offers a strategic staging post to control the western approaches to the Malacca Strait. In the east, the Spratly Islands offer a strategic location with respect to the sea-lane between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean via the Malacca Strait. It would not be long before Chinese naval task forces, headed by aircraft carriers start making frequent voyages in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.



1. See Thomas J Hirschfeld, "Chinese Aircraft Carrier Programme: A Virtual Dragonfly", p.3., at <http://www.kida.re kr/journal/hirsh.html>.

2. You Xu and You Ji, "In Search of Blue Water Power : The PLA Navy's Maritime Strategy in the 1990's and Beyond", Working Paper No 222, The Strategic and Defence Studies Center, Australia: Canberra, Australian National University, 1990, p.12.

3. Far Eastern Economic Review, April 9,1998,p. 20 .

4. You Xu and You Ji., n.2, p.12.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p,11.

7. SeeThomas J Hirschfeld, n.1., p.3.

8. Ibid., p.6.

9. Jun Zhan, "China Goes to the Blue Waters : The Navy, Seapower Mentality and South China Sea", The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, September 1994, p.201.

10. Ibid.

11. Swaran Singh, "China's Aircraft Carrier Programme", The Pioneer, September 4, 1995.

12. See Andrei Pinkov, "The Chinese Navy and Russian Aircraft Carriers", at <http://www.kanwa.com/english/981107c.html>.

13. Ibid.

14. See <http://www.cnd.org/CND-Global.99.2nd/CND-Glogal.99-06-15.html>.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. See <http://www.tibet.ca/wtn archive/1993/3/8-1.html>.

18. Yang Zhiben, "China Needs Sea Power", Junshi Shilin 29 (April 1990), p.63, cited in Jun Zhan, n. 15, p. 200.

19. Xia Jun, "An Interview With the Naval Air Force Commander of the South Sea Fleet", Jianchun Zhishi (Jun1988), p.13. , cited in Jun Zhan, n.15, p. 200.

20. Lester J Gesteland, "China Naval Experts Ponder Need For Aircraft Carrier", at <http://www.chinaonline.com/industry/aviation/Archive/Secure/1999/december/c9120104.asp>.

21. Jun Zhan, n.15, p. 200.

22. Paul Beaver, "China Looks to Europe for Aircraft Carrier", Jane's Pointer, December 1996, cited in no.1., p.5.

23. Far Eastern Economic Review, April 9, 1998.

24. Jun Zhan, n.15, p.199.

25. See <http;//www.tibet.ca/wtnarchive/1993/3/8-1.html>.

26. Jane's Fighting Ships 1983-84,p.21.

27. See <http://www.iol.net.au/~conway/ships/melbourne2.html>.

28. Ibid.

29. See < http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/row/plan/cv.html>.

30. Nayan Chanda, "No Cash Carrier", Far Eastern Economic Review, October 10, 1996, p.20.

31. See <http://www.cast.ru/english/publish/1997/april-may/mikhailov.html> and <http;//www.frenchnavy.free.fr/clem.html>.

32. Ibid.

33. Nayan Chanda, n.3., p.20.

34. See <http://www.taiwandc.org/twcom/73-no5.html>.

35. Ibid.

36. See <http;//www.frenchnavy.free.fr/clem.html>.

37. See <http://www.sholey.can/stories/march2000/01032000.html..

38. See <http://www.periscopeone.com/demo/weapons/ships/carriers/w0003911.html>.

39. Bruce Gilley, "Scrap Value : Buyers of an Unfinished Ukrainian Carrier have China Ties", Far Eastern Economic Review, April 9, 1998, p. 20 .

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Beijing Review, May 22, 2000, p.18.

44. See <http://www.shenzhenwindow.net/guides/military-park%20html>.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. See <http://www.periscopeone.com/demo/weapons/ships/carriers/w0003911.html>.

48. Ibid.

49. "Mystry Surrounds Chinese Carrier Deal", Jane's Navy International, June 2000, p.9.

50. See <http://www.chinaonline.com/industry/aviation/newsarchives/secure/2000/january/c00011102as p.>.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. See <http://www.cast.ru/english/publish/1997/april-may/mikhailov.html>

54. See William M Carpenter, "China Defence Buildup on Track", at < http://www.gdr.org.>.

55. Andrei Pinkov, n.12, p.1.

56. Ibid.

57. Ibid.

58. See <http://www.webcom/~anraa.html#orel>.

59. Andrei Pinkov, n.12, pp.2-3.

60. Ibid.

61. Ibid.

62. Ai Hongren, Joint Publication Research Service, China ( JPRS-CAR-90-052), July 16, 1990, p.14.

63. Cited in James Gregor, "Qualified Engagement: US China Policy and Security Concerns", on line version of Naval War College Review, Spring 1999, p.14.

64. You Xu and You Ji, n.2, p.14.

65. Ibid.,pp.6-7.

66. Lester J. Gesteland, n.20, p.1.

67. You Xu and You Ji, n.2, p.6.

68. Andrei Pinkov, n.12, p1.

69. You Xu and You Ji, n.2, p.13.

70. Thomas J. Hirschfeld, n.1, p.4.

71. You Xu and You Ji, n.2, p.13.

72. "China Reportedly to Build First Aircraft Carrier", FBIS-CHI-2000-0112, January 13,2000.

73. Lester J. Gesteland, n.20, p.1.

74. Ibid.

75. You Xu and You Ji, n.2, p.13.

76. "China Reportedly to Build First Aircraft Carrier", FBIS-CHI-2000-0112, January 13, 2000.

77. You Xu and You Ji, n.2, p.12.

78. Swaran Singh, "China's Aircraft Carrier Programme", The Pioneer, September 4, 1995.

79. "China Reportedly to Build First Aircraft Carrier", FBIS-CHI-2000-0112, January 13, 2000.

80. See <http://www.tibet.ca/wtn archive/1993/3/8-1.html>.

81. David Arse," A Militarized Japan", The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 4, 18, no 3, September 1995, p.85.

82. Yossef Bodansky, "The PRC Surge for the Strait of Malacca and Spratly Confronts India and the US, Defence & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, September 1995, p.6.