While all the drama of the debt ceiling negotiations and downgrade were happening, China quietly launched their first aircraft carrier.
So what does that mean in the big scheme of things? Well IBD lays out the big point as clearly as anyone can:
It is not yet a full-fledged fighting ship. Its mission is to gain experience in carrier operations, particularly for pilots unaccustomed to taking off from and landing on a carrier’s moving deck.
Yet it represents a sea change in potential capability and something that Congress’ bipartisan fiscal supercommittee should ponder as draconian defense cuts remain on the table.
The first is no mean trick. Learning carrier operations and training carrier pilots takes a while. But the second point – about the supercommittee and defense cuts – should be lost on no one. One of the critical points about cuts to spending is the differentiation between good cuts, that is cuts that trim away fat and waste, and bad cuts, cuts that remove muscle and bone.
But back to the carrier and China’s intentions. First a few facts:
A few weeks ago Chinese Su-27 fighters intercepted a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft that had taken off from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa as part of a routine surveillance program of China. And Beijing issued a warning that such surveillance near its shores will not long be tolerated.
China’s capabilities have taken a quantum leap since a Chinese J-8 jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance jet in April 2001 off Hainan, the island that now has a base for Chinese ballistic missile and attack submarines.
China in recent years has laid claims to Japan’s Senkaku Islands, the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and has conducted at least nine incursions into Philippines-claimed territory.
China is flexing. No question in anyone’s mind that it is feeling its oats and will be challenging the status quo in the South China Sea. It consider that to be China’s “blue soil”. Add to the facts above that China has been reported to have developed an aircraft carrier killer missile and is in the beginning phases of developing a 5th generation fighter, and you have to begin to wonder if all of that points to benign intent.
Beijing’s goal is to secure the waters from Japan’s home islands, along the Ryukyu chain, through Taiwan and to the Strait of Malacca, encompassing the South China Sea.
Chinese government writings refer to the waters surrounding China as blue soil. Where governments used to draw a line in the sand, Beijing is preparing to draw a line in what other governments view as international waters.
Last week, the state newspaper People’s Daily warned of "dire consequences" if Beijing is challenged in the South China Sea.
The People’s Daily is, of course, an organ of the ruling Communist Party in China and nothing hits its pages unless approved at the highest level.
Aircraft carriers are offensive weapons, not defensive weapons. Their purpose for existence is to project power. The carrier China just launched will not be their last or only carrier. The question is, what does China intend to do with it?
IBD concludes with the current situation and the future worry:
We will be hard-pressed to meet the emerging Chinese threat when our Navy has only 286 ships (down 45% from 1991, when it had 529) and continues to shrink.
We’ve closed the F-22 Raptor production lines, and even some in the Tea Party are insisting on defense cuts to make up for our spending follies.
Defense is a constitutional imperative, not an optional budget item. We’d better pay attention to that Chinese carrier.