The U.S. military’s newly released annual assessment of China’s defense capabilities will surprise no one in saying that Beijing is improving its military training, weapons and surveillance so as to be able to conduct more sophisticated attacks against Washington and other adversaries closer to home. Neither is it any surprise that this is a result of China’s two-decades-long drive to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
If anything, this report to the U.S. Congress is a restatement of the justifications for Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’ announced in 2012. It is also perhaps the clearest statement to date of how that doctrinal shift is being tempered by U.S. budget cuts — and provides an implicit counterargument for curtailing them.
In light of those budget-cutting pressure, the Pentagon sees an opportunity for offshoring some of the cost of its increased Asian presence to its Asian allies. In every region of the world, the Pentagon says, it will seek to build the capacity of partners’ forces so that they, not Washington, can take the lead in providing security. That should also provide a bonus for America’s arms manufacturers who should see increased export demand for their wares as a result.
Equally predictably, Beijing has dismissed the report as a holdover of Cold War thinking, and says that its armed forces are still 20-30 years behind those of the U.S., which spends more than another nation on its military at 4% of GDP. Beijing also asserts that its military build-up is solely for defending its own sovereignty, though as the continuing conflicts in the South and East China Seas testify, sovereignty can be in the eye of the beholder.
“Probable” drone reconnaissance in the East China Sea was among the most significant military developments of last year identified by the Pentagon in its report. Others include:
- air-defense upgrades to destroyers and frigates;
- test flights of China’s Y-20 transport planes to move ground forces quickly across great distances;
- at least eight launches to expand intelligence and surveillance from space;
- integration of anti-radar missiles into the PLA Air Force’s fighter-bomber fleet; and
- the PLA Navy’s development of long-range, over-the-horizon radar as a targeting mechanism for DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles carried on new Jiangdo-class corvettes, which previous Pentagon reports have identified as a threat to the U.S. new Littoral Combat ships.
The Pentagon’s assessment is couched in terms that suggest its working assumption for any future China-U.S. military conflict is that it would be a high-tech naval and missile fight. Thus the U.S. military’s need is to invest in technology more than capacity, and to ensure that its partner militaries in Tokyo, Manila and elsewhere in the region are willing and able to undertake U.S.-led training.
They may want to wait until after 2016 when the U.S. will have a new administration which may have a new set of priorities. Beijing will be quite happy to continue its PLA modernization in the meantime.
There was a certain symbolism to the timing of the formal commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier into the PLA-Navy (above, with more pictures of the ceremony at a naval base north of Dalian here). It came as Beijing is embroiled in maritime sovereignty disputes with most of its neighbours in the East and South China Seas. Carriers project the epitome of naval power, and as many officials have repeated, are “symbols of a great nation”.
It is worth remembering, however, that China’s first carrier–a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, now renamed the Liaoning–falls into the class of light aircraft carriers. As a “ski-jump” not “catapult” carrier, it can’t launch the most advanced fighters. It is as much an aviation-capable patrol ship as a carrier of the line. It is primarily intended for the PLA to learn the ropes of carrier operations.
At the 58,500-tons, the vessel is small by carrier standards. It is about half the size of U.S. carriers, even if still large enough to dwarf the coast guard boats and fishing vessels now increasingly plying the more sensitive disputed waters off the coasts of China and its neighbours. This year was always the intended date of its commissioning, but state media have previously reported that the carrier won’t be ready for active service until 2017, which is not to say it won’t be available for flag-waving duties before then. But it is also worth remembering that two larger and more advanced carriers are under construction in yards in Shanghai planned for launch in 2014 with a first nuclear powered carrier scheduled for launch by 2020.
China’s first aircraft carrier won’t be ready to be put into active service until 2017, state media report. The reports, accompanied by a set of mix’n’match pictures mostly of the Varag at berth in Dalian, go to some length to explain that sea trials of new carriers are a lengthy business everywhere.
Late last month the carrier completed its ninth and longest sea trial to date, a 25-day sailing in the north Bohai and Yellow seas, where it was first spotted at sea. There is a set of pictures of the a vessel returning from its most recent voyage here.
While it is thought that the Varyag is fully equipped with its missiles and other armaments, further tests are needed to ensure that the various electrical systems on the vessel don’t interfere with each other. Flight crews also need considerable practice in the all-important art of taking off and landing on the carrier at sea, and particular in simulated combat conditions. The Varyag is estimated to need 30 pilots, all of which will take some time to train.
China’s first aircraft carrier is conducting its third set of sea trials, the defense ministry says. The Varyag had set out on its second sea trials at the end of November, during which it was photographed at sea for the first time by an American satellite. The picture above is one of the latest of the vessel to be published, and is believed to be of the former Soviet carrier again leaving its berth in Dalian where it had been refurbished. That it is dated December 22nd suggests the carrier has been at sea for several days.
The satellite picture above is the first reported sighting at sea of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag. It was taken by a U.S. imaging company, Digital Globe, on December 8, and shows the vessel in the Yellow Sea some 100 kilometers south-southeast of Dalian, the port where the converted former Soviet carrier has been refitted. The carrier sailed from Dalian on November 29 to undertake its second sea trials. We have photos of it leaving port and of the first test flight of the carrier-based J-15 fighter in PLA-Navy colors that is being developed to equip China’s planned carrier fleet here.
These two pictures of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, were taken on November 29th as the vessel was leaving its berth in Dalian for its second sea trials.
The first sea trials took place in August. There are plenty of pictures of the ship’s return here.
Meanwhile, state media has published what is says are pictures of the test flight of a carrier-based J-15 fighter, though the photograph is undated. (Similar pictures of a J-15 in PLA-Navy colours were doing the rounds in April.) China has produced three prototypes of the aircraft. There has been speculation that a landing and takeoff from the carrier may have been attempted during the second sea trial but it is more likely that any such exercise would have involved helicopters in the first instance.
The so-called string of pearls—a series of naval bases in South and Southeast Asia intended to secure Chinese sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean–looks to be adding another gem. Beijing has indicated that it will start using the Seychelles to resupply its naval fleet, initially PLA-Navy vessels on anti-piracy patrols, but also prompting speculation that this is a prelude to establishing a naval base there. Defense Minister Liang Guanglie was in the Seychelles earlier this month to boost bilateral ties. Seychelles President James Alix Michel visited Beijing in October. The two countries have had a military cooperation agreement since 2004 that provides for Seychelles soldiers to be trained in China.
Pearls already in the string include Marao in the Maldives, Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sittwe in Burma, Lamu in Kenya and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. China also has resupply agreements with Oman and Yemen, similar to the one being initially proposed with the Seychelles. The U.S. has a drone base in the Seychelles, but the arrival of the Chinese fleet in such a strategically important part of the Indian Ocean would give rise to most concern in New Delhi.