China's New Aircraft Carrier Bolsters Its Regional Reach

The Chinese navy doesn't come close to America's, but it could pose future challenges.

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China's first ever—and still unfinished—aircraft carrier completed its maiden trial voyage over the weekend, docking Sunday morning in the Chinese port city of Dalian. The shakedown cruise marks a genuine milestone for China. But for the United States, which remains the world's strongest naval power, it's little more than a reminder that the People's Liberation Army, China's military arm, could pose greater challenges down the road.

Naval experts say that there's really no comparison between the overall military capabilities of the United States and that of China. And for now at least, there's not much similarity between the overall near-term naval goals of each country either. China, for instance, mostly remains a localized power in the Asia Pacific region, while the United States has a significant presence worldwide. One aircraft carrier won't change that, experts say, but it could be an indication of where China's heading. [Read more about national security and the military.]

The carrier itself—a former Soviet vessel which a Chinese tourism company reportedly bought for use as a casino from Ukraine in 1998—is at least a year or two away from entering into active service. Then becoming a fully operational mobile hub for aircraft could take several more years, as the Chinese learn how to use the carrier and build up a support group to protect it.

By contrast, now at any given moment, says American naval consultant Norman Polmar, the United States has 10 active aircraft carriers (11 total in commission), each of which can get 60 or more planes in the air immediately. "It's going to be a year or two before they even risk a night landing," Polmar says, referring to China. "That's something we do all the time."

Basic comparisons aside, that doesn't mean China's developing navy is insignificant for the United States, especially when considering both countries' interests in the Asia Pacific region, says David Finkelstein, director of China studies at CNA's Center for Naval Analysis, a non-profit based in Alexandria, Va. "The concern of the United States is not the capabilities that the Chinese are accruing, but the intentions that the Chinese party-state has in how it's going to employ these assets," he says. "So, while the capabilities are there on display, it's the intentions that people are concerned about."

Indeed, last week the U.S. State Department made a statement regarding the lack of transparency about the testing of China's aircraft carrier. "We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment," Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters last week. "This is part of our larger concern that China is not as transparent as other countries. It's not as transparent as the United States about its military acquisitions, about its military budget."

This lack of openness has left many onlookers guessing just what the People's Liberation Army is up to. Unlike the Soviets during the Cold War, says Bernard Cole, a naval expert and professor at the National War College, the Chinese likely don't see it is an "our navy versus their navy" type situation. Instead, he says, they're focused on specific scenarios. [Read about China's views on the debt ceiling debate.]

In the region, the United States has partnered with China's neighbors, like the Philippines and Vietnam, to promote peace with the Chinese in a dispute over territory in the South China Sea. Taiwan, which the United States helps to protect, also remains one of China's top regional interests. So, according to Cole, China's most likely looking for strategic opportunities to get around the United States in these conflicts, rather than whether they could take on the U.S. Navy directly.

According to Owen Cote, associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Chinese even have a hard time reaching that relatively modest regional goal of preventing the U.S. Navy from interfering with its relationships with immediate neighbors. "They basically want to prevent us from influencing their ability to coerce their neighbors," he says. "If you do a whole net assessment, they still have a long way to go just to achieve that objective."