- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2011

Imagine a Chinese aircraft carrier sailing south close along the Florida coast and making a port call in Cuba. It seems unimaginable but this scenario may be in our near future.

This week, Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, confirmed publicly what had long been suspected, that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is constructing its first aircraft carrier. In 1998, a Chinese company purchased the partially-built Soviet-era carrier Varyag, which has been sitting in a dockyard in Ukraine, ostensibly to turn it into a floating casino in Macau. That, however, was just a cover story; the 990-foot, 67,500 ton carrier is being fitted for military use at the Chinese port of Dalian.

The as-yet unnamed ship does not pose an imminent threat to American surface naval dominance. Of the 20 operational aircraft carriers in the world, 11 are U.S. warships, and U.S. supercarriers are much larger than those of other countries, comprising 82 percent of total carrier tonnage. The five smallest carriers combined have less tonnage than the U.S.S. Enterprise, which at 94,700 tons is the smallest U.S. carrier. The combat power of non-U.S. carriers is comparatively limited. That said, when China’s carrier becomes operational, it will be the largest non-American vessel in the world.

Beijing says its carrier will not be a threat to any particular country, including the United States. Yet it is unclear why China needs an aircraft carrier. Carriers are offensive weapons systems designed for power projection. They also serve important demonstration and deterrence roles. When the United States periodically sends a carrier through the Taiwan Strait, the message to China is unmistakable. Likewise, the PRC’s message to America in building a carrier is obvious. The ship can be expected to log many hours simply making its presence felt in ways that will make U.S. naval strategists distinctly uncomfortable in the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Caribbean.

Shifts in the strategic balance can come swiftly. A decade ago, space-power enthusiasts liked to describe the United States as the world’s preeminent space-faring nation. Now that the space-shuttle fleet is being decommissioned, Americans will only be able to go into space by hitching a ride with a country that places more value on manned space flight - a country like China, for example, which is aggressively expanding its manned space-flight capabilities with a view toward a lunar mission. In 2008, PRC space-program spokesman Wang Zhaoyao said, “We believe that as long as we can make further progress in science and technology, we can achieve the dream of a manned space flight to the moon in the near future.” No date has been set publicly for China’s giant lunar leap, but it will herald a new era of PRC power and influence.

Beijing’s new carrier will have a similar impact. Since World War II, the United States has been accustomed to thinking of the world’s oceans as unchallenged spheres of American influence. The U.S. Navy can go anywhere in the world that policymakers choose to send it, or if confronted, can deal with any attempt to deny access. China’s new aircraft carrier will not tip the material balance on the high seas, but it will send a message that America isn’t the only blue-water game in town.

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