- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

HONOLULU — The new commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific and Asia says he found Chinese military leaders intensely interested in acquiring aircraft carriers during a recent visit to that country.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating added in an interview that he had warned the Chinese about the huge challenges involved in building and manning an aircraft carrier. “I suggested let’s not be naive about the complexity of those ships, and they are not cheap,” he said.

The admiral, a naval aviator who has made 1,200 carrier landings, said all of the Chinese leaders with whom he spoke during a five-day stay this month indicated their inclination to pursue the development of aircraft carriers.

“No [Chinese] said ‘We’re not going to do this,’ ” he said at his Pacific Command headquarters overlooking Pearl Harbor.

Chinese ambitions to acquire aircraft carriers were described last week in a Pentagon report titled, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007.”

A defense official briefing reporters on the report in Washington said Beijing seemed to be motivated by a desire to defend sea lanes used to transport oil for the nation’s fast-growing economy.

Chinese state media rejected the Pentagon report yesterday as misleading and insulting, and said China had to pursue military modernization to avoid falling further behind the United States.

Adm. Keating declined to speculate on when China might start building a carrier but noted that it takes the U.S. Navy — with the most extensive experience in the world — more than a decade to design, build, equip with aircraft, and train both air and ship crews.

“This would be a profoundly difficult venture if the Chinese choose to undertake it,” he said.

The U.S. Navy had nearly 800 planes crash in training accidents in 1954 during the transition from propeller driven aircraft to jet aircraft. Even as late as 1999, the Navy lost 22 planes flown by the world’s most experienced aviators.

Internal discussion and external speculation over China’s acquisition of an aircraft carrier has been churning for at least 25 years, but now seems to have picked up momentum. Adm. Keating said he sensed that, just below the surface, the Chinese saw aircraft carriers as potent symbols of great power status, a clear Chinese aspiration.

An early Chinese advocate of aircraft carriers was Adm. Liu Huaqing from the time he became chief of the Chinese navy in 1982 until he retired as a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in 1997.

“To modernize our national defense and build a perfect weaponry and equipment system,” the admiral once wrote, “we cannot but consider the development of aircraft carriers.”

So far, the Chinese navy has concentrated on buying submarines from the Russians or building them at home. That policy, however, will most likely not last much longer, say Andrew Erickson and Andrew Wilson, faculty members at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

“While submarines seem to be ascendant, the Chinese are still actively engaged with the carrier question and are reframing the terms of the debate,” they wrote last fall. They suggested that China could include carriers in their next five-year plan, which begins in 2011.

There appear to be five reasons China may buy or build a carrier:

• International prestige: Adm. Keating, Mr. Erickson and Mr. Wilson noted that Chinese often say “a nation cannot become a great power without having an aircraft carrier.”

• Power projection: China has proclaimed that the waters and islands of the South China Sea are Chinese territory. Southeast Asians dispute those claims but a carrier would back China’s contention.

• Defending lifelines: Increasing amounts of oil for China’s industry pass through the Straits of Malacca between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. A carrier could help defend them.

• Regional rivalry: India and Japan, which Chinese leaders see as political competitors, are well ahead of China in sea power. A carrier would help close that gap.

• Relief operations: China was humiliated after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean drew swift responses from the United States, Japan, and other nations with air and naval assets, while China could do little to help.

China would not need a carrier to attack Taiwan, which many see as its top military priority. Such an attack could be managed with land-based aircraft that can be refueled in the air and a large missile force facing the island across the Taiwan Strait.

• Bill Gertz in Washington contributed to this report.

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