Chinese media report that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may base its first home-built aircraft carrier near the South China Sea, allowing for a quick response to "complicated situations."
China's existing carrier, the Liaoning, was purchased as an unfinished hull from Russia in 1998 and declared combat-ready late last year. She is based out of Qingdao, and recently completed a patrol of the South China Sea, the Strait of Formosa and the Sea of Japan. An aircraft carrier permanently based in southern China would add significantly to the PLAN’s presence in the region.
Over the past several years, China has engaged in an expansive push to solidify its claims in the South China Sea. It has emplaced defensive armament on a series of artificial islands off the Philippines and has drilled for oil within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Last year, the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague declared China's "nine-dash line" claim to most of the South China Sea to be invalid under UNCLOS, but China has forcefully rejected the ruling.
On Wednesday, the former head of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Sir Angus Houston, told a security conference in Canberra that it is too late to halt the Chinese advance.
“I have seen the imagery [of China’s artificial islands] . . . what you see is infrastructure going in, and it is not going to be too much longer before it is fully developed," he said. “All of this development will enable China to dominate the South China Sea and extend its permanent military presence further south in proximity to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore . . . In my view it is too late to stop the China program in the South China Sea."
He suggested that it was time for cooperation rather than competition in the area, and emphasized the importance of avoiding confrontational moves by the United States, China's only rival for regional dominance. “The U.S. needs to engage with and make space for China,” he said. “In my view we need more cooperation and less competition.”
The Trump administration’s first foreign policy actions – notably Trump’s threat to recognize Taiwan – suggest that accommodation may not be a feature of its approach to China. One of President Trump's chief political advisors, former conservative media personality Steve Bannon, said last year that he believes that a war with China will occur within a decade. (Bannon has been named a regular attendee to the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, an unprecedented position for a White House political staffer.)
“We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we?” said Bannon in a radio broadcast last year. “There’s no doubt about that. [China is] taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”
The recent rhetoric from the Chinese side is no less heated. In a recent statement published by the People's Liberation Army, a senior official with China's Central Military Commission said that Communist Party slogans like "war breaking out tonight" are no longer just slogans, but a "practical reality."
The Philippines and Vietnam – the two nations most directly affected by the South China Sea dispute – have recently moved to defuse past confrontations with China, and have opened the door to maritime cooperation and diplomatic talks with Beijing. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has spoken of shared development of oil resources within the Philippine EEZ, and has even asked the Chinese navy for anti-piracy assistance within the Philippine waters of the Sulu Sea.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.