China’s Aircraft Carrier Envy

A spokesman for the Chinese defense ministry repeated China’s decade-long interest in building or acquiring an aircraft carrier, according to DefenseNews. Of course, the rule of thumb with carriers is that if you have one, you don’t have any, as the recently completed fifteen-month dry dock of France’s only carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, demonstrated. I’m not enough of an economist to know whether the current global economic downturn argues for such a costly project (economic stimulus) or against it.

The spokesman’s remarks came at a press conference announcing the participation of three Chinese vessels in the anti-piracy patrols off of Somalia. That participation has been correctly described as a watermark cooperative military effort between the U.S. and China. But it also represents a coming out party of sorts for China’s deep sea navy, one component of the very power projection capabilities — along with long-range strategic air strike and transport capability — that China watchers have long flagged as indicators of how peaceful China’s rise will ultimately be.

Of course, the second rule of thumb regarding carriers is that, in addition to being “a symbol of overall national strength and a symbol of the competitiveness of the nation’s naval force,” they are more in line with forceprojection than the coastal defense logic offered by the defense ministry spokesman. So expect to read quite a few alarmed op-eds should China ever announce more than just a desire for one.

Update: This NY Times article makes mention of the kind of tension a decision to build a carrier would cause. It also calls the spokesman’s remarks “the clearest indication yet that China could soon begin building its first aircraft carrier.” Never too early for a good dose of alarm, I suppose.