In his reaction to the December 6 Chinese Global Times article quoting experts saying China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may require five or six aircraft carriers, David Axe wrote an article asking, “Could Beijing really pull it off?” The short answer is that Beijing is just getting started.
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) one of the most important missions for state media like the Global Times is to ensure that the Chinese people never doubt the increasing power of CCP’s dictatorship and that all others come to accept the inevitability of China’s “benevolent” global leadership. The Global Times and many other outlets daily promote scores of articles touting elements of Chinese power ranging from specific new weapons to China’s grand strategies. From now on, a major goal of China’s state media and its strategic information operations will be acclimating the world to a globally-projected People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
One key characteristic of such articles is that they usually do not convey new information, but can track with what is already reported or mentioned in publicly available information. For example, on December 31, 2008, Kenji Minemura of the Asahi Shimbun, reporting from Beijing and citing “military and shipbuilding sources,” wrote that China would build two “domestically produced” aircraft carriers in addition to the Varyag/Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine. Then on February 13, 2009, he reported China would build two nuclear-powered carriers “in 2020 or later.” So a decade ago Chinese “military and shipbuilding sources” mooted the goal of five carriers, but why should this be viewed as China’s final goal?
Signs abound that China is building or seeking the infrastructure necessary for global maritime projection. China has assembled design teams for non-nuclear (CV) and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVN) and has shipyards in Dalian and Shanghai now producing aircraft carriers. Multiple indications from Chinese sources indicate that after building two 65,000 ton CVs, the Shanghai yard will then start making larger CVNs for generations to come. Dalian could continue to build flattop carriers, or transition to landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, but these might also follow the production of up to eight Type 071 landing platform dock amphibious assault ships. By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, the PLA could have over ten CVs and CVNs. In addition, Chinese sources indicate that the PLA Marines will be expanded to a force of 100,000, suggesting an eventual “Gator” navy of thirty to forty large amphibious projection ships.
The bases to support such a fleet is also discernible. In April 2013, the PLA revealed a newly-built naval base for its first aircraft carrier Liaoning in Qingdao, and before that, a new naval base in Yalong Bay on Hainan Island had been completed. Both today could likely accommodate four aircraft carriers. Should the PLA ever succeed in conquering democratic Taiwan, it is conceivable that Taiwan’s naval bases and ports, some newly built, could eventually accommodate at least six to eight nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. From Hainan and Taiwan bases, PLAN nuclear-powered carrier battle groups, including nuclear powered supply ships, could sortie very quickly to isolate Northeast Asia, isolate U.S. Navy forces in Guam and Hawaii, or project power to assert China’s interests in the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Africa, and in the Atlantic Ocean.
A global network of military access arrangements and bases is perhaps the second most important secondary product of China’s three to ten trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Road infrastructure building initiatives; additional to the “purchase” of global governing political elites. PLA military network building has long complemented China’s economic and political power projection. Beijing’s economic and political muscle includes the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the pan-African China Africa Defense and Security Forum, and the clear intention to build a similar “forum” covering Latin America and the Caribbean. With the first real PLA foreign base or “logistical facility” in Djibouti, we can monitor Chinese interest in establishing similar military access in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Maldives, Seychelles, Vanuatu, Fiji, Sao Tome and Principe, Nigeria, Zambia, and Venezuela. If the PLAN goes unchecked, it is reasonable to expect that around 2049, it could be supporting a presence in the Mediterranean, Atlantic Ocean, and the Arctic.