China adds a pawn to the Indo-Pacific chessboard

(To Renato Scarfi)
26/09/22

Last June 17, the Chinese aircraft carrier Fujian (ex Type 003), the most significant ship of the naval component of the People's Republic (People Liberation Army Navy - PLAN), left the dock of the Jangnan shipyard, north-east of Shanghai, and began the final stage of outfitting. The ceremony was attended by Xu Qiliang, a member of the political bureau of the CCP Central Committee and vice-president of the Central Military Commission.

China, therefore, adds a pawn in the Indo-Pacific chessboard and continues to strengthen its air-naval component, in order to allow a substantial presence on the waters of more immediate interest, in view of a subsequent, and more geopolitically significant, strategic projection on more distant seas.

With this new unit the PLAN makes a considerable capacitive leap, approaching US and French technology standards, the only countries that so far had operational aircraft carriers in CATOBAR configuration (launch with catapult and stop with cables). Unlike the two Chinese aircraft carriers already operational, Liaoning (ex-Russian Varyag) and Shandong, each equipped with a springboard for the take-off of V / STOL aircraft, Fujian has in fact electromagnetic catapults (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System - EMALS) for the take-off of embarked aircraft.

With its displacement of about 80.000 t for a length of 320 m, this aircraft carrier will be able to accommodate both the 5th generation J-XY / J-35 fighter-bomber (derived from the FC-31 Gyrfalcon), still in the testing phase, and the early warning Xian KJ-600, a high-wing twin-engine turboprop at an advanced stage of development, equipped with low-frequency detection radar.

La Fujian, however, before becoming fully operational and providing its contribution to Chinese maritime ambitions, it will have to finish the set-up and complete all the planned training phases. According to the most optimistic Chinese estimates, this shouldn't happen until mid-2024.

A third aircraft carrier, therefore, which represents a capacitive jump, as the duly armed and adequately escorted aircraft carriers are to be considered as a weapon system capable of enhancing the deterrence device and allowing a significant power projection, with all due respect to those who think that a coastal patrol vessel may have some type of deterrent capacity. (read article "Importance of the aircraft carrier in a modern Navy")

The consistency of the aircraft carrier component that Beijing intends to have in the medium term is ignored, however, considering also the necessary maintenance periods, a minimum number of three aircraft carriers appears reasonably sufficient to obtain a significant deterrence alone in the waters immediately facing its coasts.

Nevertheless, it is not only the numerical consistency that can allow a reliable assessment of the overall operational effectiveness of the Chinese naval component. On the scales, in fact, the greatest weight is represented by the operational maturity of the PLAN, compared to potential competitors / adversaries (read the article "The Chinese challenge to US naval power").

The Chinese admirals are certainly well aware of the situation of relative inferiority in which their fleet would find itself in an air-naval confrontation in the open sea with the Americans, their main antagonists on those waters. The operational effectiveness of the Chinese aircraft carriers is in fact all to be demonstrated, or to be achieved, while that of the US aircraft carriers is proven. And this, if we consider that the Chinese crews lack war experience, having recently conducted only a few minor exercises, in a direct confrontation it would play a decisive role. The war experience, in fact, is a factor that in a battle in the open sea has always had a not negligible weight. Unlike the Americans, in fact, the Chinese Navy has not fought at sea for decades and the last time it did so in a major naval confrontation, at the mouth of the Yalu River against the Japanese in the summer of 1895, Chinese ships were all sunk.

Furthermore, in terms of operational sustainability, it must be considered that electromagnetic catapults are considerably energy-intensive and the Fujian it is not a nuclear aircraft carrier, such as the US and French correspondents. A non-secondary factor.

The geopolitical implications

As a country thrives and grows stronger, its international ambitions also grow accordingly. A principle that is even more valid for a China that boasts cultural roots that go back to 1600 BC.

China today is a very different country than it was then (how could it be otherwise?), With a political and institutional history that was completely upset by Mao Zedong's revolution in 1949. After decades of cultural, political and economic isolation, over the past 25 years the People's Republic of China has shifted from widespread poverty to a form of bourgeois capitalism, which has led a large part of the population to savor the pleasure of some previously unknown comforts, such as a proper home, nice clothes, daily food and objects luxury. But well-being raises expectations and requires more and more resources. It has been calculated that, for oil alone, 2010% of China's needs transited by sea in 80. Given the growing need for energy resources, the new pipelines will only alleviate China's dependence on shipping via Hormuz and Malacca. And this without taking into account the economic importance of the transport of goods by sea. This is where Beijing's race to the oceans comes from.

Parallel to a notable continental diplomatic activism, in which the Chinese are attracting the ex-Soviet Asian countries to Beijing, with the decisive complicity of Putin's nefarious and unsuccessful policy, the People's Republic is therefore also acquiring important maritime skills. At the base of this relatively recent conversion of a historically continental power there is not only the aforementioned need to ensure the maritime transits that support its economy, but also some important territorial contrasts with the other coastal countries of the area, which have significant repercussions. on the exploitation of the huge underwater and fish resources. (read article "Hong Kong, Beijing and the South China Sea")

The maritime strategy developed by the Chinese is based on imaginary and unilateral maritime border lines and on naval preparation capable of extending its influence from the closest and disputed maritime areas, such as the China Sea, and then spreading wherever there are Chinese interests. to be protected. (read article "The Chinese maritime strategy")

The entry into service of the new aircraft carrier, as mentioned, will make PLAN make a qualitative leap and probably will not calm the Chinese maritime appetites, which will push to further increase their capabilities. expeditionary and strategic projection.

A new actor is preparing, therefore, to sail the waters of the oceans, and to play an increasingly decisive geopolitical role on the world stage, with all the implications that this entails, also in light of the methods that Beijing has decided to adopt to protect the own political and economic interests. These, in fact, are not based on cooperative multilateralism but mainly on the imposition of their own geopolitical vision (see the South China Sea). And that makes one partner with whom it is good not to bond too intimately.

final Thoughts

The huge Chinese growth accounted for a game changer in the great Asian and Indo-Pacific game and this has necessarily led to geopolitical readjustments.

The Chinese do not like the presence of antagonists (especially Americans) in what they believe to be their home waters but, while considering the United States as a giant in political and economic decline, they are perfectly aware that it is a giant capable of "Still hurt". It should also be emphasized that, in many ways, the two main antagonists "sleep in the same bed". Even if they are global rivals, in fact, they have mutually and deeply dependent economies.

To this I add that the People's Republic today has considerable internal problems such as environmental issues, the never subsiding conflicts in Tibet, the growing disparity between the poor and the wealthy, the "zero-covid" policy, which has led to unprecedented interruptions in business activities. , the latent economic crisis which, starting with the real estate sector, risks exploding and causing enormous damage. A political crisis today is not convenient for anyone, therefore, because business would suffer too much.

At the moment, therefore, China seems neither inclined nor ready to venture into a risky and harsh conflict on the sea and does not seem to have any need to implement excessively destabilizing conduct, precisely because it still has immediate and equivalent political, economic and geostrategic interests. internal or facing the Eurasian continent. In essence, peace is needed to trade and neither the People's Republic nor the United States want to compromise business, a fact that would seriously destabilize Beijing's system of power, which has based its credibility precisely on economic growth.

Today, therefore, the possibility of significant naval battles between the United States Navy and that of the Celestial Empire, modeled on those that American and Japanese ships fought during the Second World War in the Coral Sea or in the waters off the Midway Islands. As in the short / medium term, a military operation against Taiwan seems unlikely.

In this context, it is likely that relations between China and the United States will remain quite strained and problematic, starting with what Beijing considers undue demonstrations of support for Taiwan's international affirmation as an independent entity and, even more so, for military supplies that it receives from Washington. The dialectical skirmishes, the heated declarations and the demonstrations of naval power will remain, but they will be demonstrations that - in the short term - will be mainly propaganda and intended to maintain the status quo in order to show the world, and their public, their respective determination to protect their interests.

It is therefore conceivable that the PLAN will continue to strengthen and, despite the aggressive attitude shown by Beijing in the region, the lack of transparency and its considerable military growth are potentially destabilizing, the rival fleets will continue to face skirmishes, from a part to affirm Chinese sovereignty over some disputed sea areas (and related underwater resources) and on the other to reaffirm the concept of freedom of navigation on those same waters.

All the actors in the game, in fact, know that the world's economic and geopolitical balances are being played out and will always continue to be played on the oceans and seas of the world and no one, who has a minimum capacity for reasoning and foresight, wishes to risk the future of their country with rash moves, so as not to compromise its chances of counting on the world stage.

Photo: Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China

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