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Can we manage without Carrier?

14:32, April 22, 2010

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By Li Hongmei

Chinese Navy's East Sea Fleet conducted a "large-scale" military exercise on April 10 in the East China Sea, which probably explains why these ships transited through the Ryuku Islands (which China terms as the "first island chain", with the Marianas forming the "second").

The maneuver, labeled as an uptick in China's naval activity by the foreign media, has stirred up ripples of speculation in the world as well as among China's neighbors.

Chinese military theorists conceive of two island "chains" as forming a geographic basis for China's maritime defensive perimeter. The precise boundaries of these chains have never been officially defined by the Chinese government, and so are subject to some speculation.

By one account, China's "green water" extends eastward in the Pacific Ocean out to the first island chain, which is formed by the Aleutians, the Kuriles, Japan's archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo. Further eastward is "blue water" extending to the second island chain running from the north at the Bonin Islands and moving southward through the Marianas, Guam, and the Caroline Islands.

Since the Bush Administration, the US has shifted the focus of national security from ensuring its oil supply chain to preventing China from dominating the Asia-Pacific region, and it has also begun to adjust strategic deployments in the Asian region. China has since 2006 been treated as the U.S. greatest potential military opponent, as is evident in the U.S. Defense Department's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.

These concerns imply that the US is now becoming increasingly uncertain whether the chain of islands that the US linked together during the Cold War once again will be able to effectively contain China.

At present, Japan is the most cooperative in this chain of islands, while the others -- South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand -- have their own interest and political concerns.

Not all of these islands support US containment of China. Taiwan, however, seems to be one of the more corroded links in this island chain.

White House repeatedly stressed that the US would not sit idly by if China were to break through the first island chain and weaken the US dominating power in the Asia-Pacific region, as the first island chain has long acted as the first protective screen for the US maritime hegemony in the region, and the first effective blockade line for the US-Japan alliance to prevent Chinese Navy from going blue and enhancing its clout in the Pacific waters.

In order to forge a complete island chain and effectively contain China's naval capabilities, the U.S. and its ally Japan decided to shift their efforts from strengthening the weakest link in the chain to locating a replacement for Taiwan.

At present, they fix their eyes on Yonaguni, an island 110 kilometers to Taiwan, expecting it to replace Taiwan and help maintain the wholeness of the first island chain.

For China, as many believe, to make a breakthrough into the chain is also the first step for Chinese Navy to achieve its blue dream, strengthen the defensive capability on the sea by gaining more maneuvering space and, hence, more effectively defense the security and integrity of the territorial waters.

A recent online survey conducted by People Forum suggests the majority of the respondents deem it necessary for Chinese Navy to break through the first island chain and go to the deep ocean. This also echoes the comments made by some military analysts.

Sure enough, there is a surge of clamors, again, calling for the buildup of aircraft carrier. It cannot be ignored that the theory of "the unique importance of aircraft carrier" has gained ground in recent years in China. Even some experts in Navy also hold the point that Chinese maritime competitiveness cannot be substantially sharpened except when the aircraft carrier comes into being.

Meanwhile, the disheartening rhetoric, centered around the carrier's being nowhere in sight "even after a thousand entreaties," more than convince the military fans at home that, to break through the first chain and march into the water dominated by the U.S. carrier, for safeguarding the Chinese sovereignty at sea, turn out almost a pipe dream unless China puts out its own carrier to sea.

Despite the fact that China's recent naval activities do not violate international law, the size and operations are rather significant. It shows that the Chinese naval force has increased its capability by expanding its activities, with the aim of preventing any intervention by the competing naval forces.

Still, "aircraft carrier complex" conjures up some uncalled-for anxiety and a sense of inadequacy or even pessimism in the minds of some enthusiasts, who tend to pin the hopes for China to enhance the defensive capability at sea onto nothing but a colossal ship.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."