There is no more vivid example of the arms build-up in Asia, nor the atmosphere of suspicion it fuels, than the flurry of aircraft carriers launched by China, India and Japan. Japan has unveiled a 20,000 ton flat-topped Izumo destroyer that can accommodate 14 helicopters, raising fears it could actually be converted to launch jets.
Less than a week later, India launched their domestically built 37,500 ton Vikrant, which, once fully functional, will give India a bigger presence in the busy Indian Ocean, where China is building up its supply routes.
These ships follow China’s launch of a refurbished ex-Soviet Navy aircraft carrier, the 55,000-ton Liaoning, as a training platform in 2012. China is expected to build their own aircraft carriers — something that may already be happening.
After the Vikrant’s launch, the Global Times urged China to speed up the construction of domestic aircraft carriers, writing: “India’s actions remind us that the strategic significance of developing aircraft carriers in Asia is not declining.” Unless, of course, China wants to overstate its military build-up and spending to mislead potential rivals.
Even as talk focuses on China’s air craft carrier plans, the Global Times article made the first official comment on the DF-21D “carrier-killer” missile, a weapon that, if real, would potentially diminish the effectiveness of aircraft carriers in the Pacific. And it’s fair to ask why the Chinese would build aircraft carriers while pursuing a weapon that neutralizes an adversary’s aircraft carriers: do they really expect rivals not to pursue a similar “carrier-killer”? In a world where great powers try to match each other’s capabilities, it creates a real question. Whatever the case: Military planners should count on deception as a significant feature of the arms build-up in Asia.
Japan’s Izumo was launched on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing and bears the name of a warship from the Sino-Japanese war. This won’t be lost on China as Beijing and Tokyo feud over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Chinese analysts are fearing the worst for the Izumo, speculating that it’s a fighter-jet carrier in disguise. Indeed, some analysts think Japan, in a pinch, could convert its submarine fleet to be nuclear-capable within sixth months, and are drawing similar conclusions about the Izumo being able to launch jets.
Whatever the real nature of the Izumo, it’s clear Japan’s naval shipbuilding isn’t purely about defense. Japan recently scrapped a self-imposed arms-export ban at a time when many of its neighbors are looking to bolster their fleets. And “a properly remilitarized Japan might also help the nation out of its current economic hole,” writes Michael Fitzpatrick in Fortune. A yen that has lost as much as 30 per cent in value against the U.S. dollar in a year, thanks to Abenomics, also means more naval bang for your buck, with countries like Vietnam and Australia considered possible buyers.
The ability of Asian nations to build their own aircraft carriers puts them in a league long reserved for the U.S. (whose existing air craft carriers are nearly 100,000 tons), Russia, the U.K. and France. And the prestige a home-built aircraft carrier confers might explain some of their luster to countries where poverty and hunger remain an issue.
Whereas warships have offensive and defensive functions, aircraft carriers are considered tools for projecting power, acting almost as a chunk of sovereign territory that can be maneuvered into place to bring pressure on a rival. Add that to the festering territorial disputes on the boil in the region and it makes for worrying scenarios. One day, the Chinese and Japanese coast guard ships that routinely circle the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku in Japanese, could be shadowed by carriers from both countries, increasing the risks should one side, with planes aloft, misunderstand the actions of the other. Likewise, the calculus in the ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal could change if China shows the ability and willingness to could park an aircraft carrier nearby to increase an already notable level of pressure. And don’t forget the U.S. Navy routinely sails through the South China Sea. One hopes there will be enough room in the seas to accommodate these giants — and the aspirations of their owners.