Hugo Restall, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, writes about the significance of China’s recent announcement that its navy is in the market for an aircraft carrier. From the Wall Street Journal:
First things first: China is not about to knock America off its perch as the world’s sole superpower. Developing the capacity to deploy aircraft carriers is a feat of incredible complexity. China’s carrier project will take at least a decade to realize, and it will require billions of dollars and a great deal of the country’s military design capacity. Even the Soviet Union found it difficult to master carrier operation, as China knows full well — since 1998 it has bought the hulks of three Soviet carriers to study them. Just forming the flotilla to protect one carrier would require most of the modern ships currently in China’s fleet.
Yet there’s every reason to believe China will achieve its goal eventually and deploy multiple carriers. It will likely start by using aircraft bought from Russia but go on to develop its own weapons systems. China will end up with a much smaller ship than the American super-carriers, with weapons about a generation behind. But this will still put it far ahead of its neighbors — no East Asian country currently has carrier capacity.
So the balance of power in Asia is going to shift dramatically in the decade ahead, and nowhere will the effects be more evident than in the South China Sea.