Blue Water Dreams

Why China wants an aircraft carrier.

BY JAMES HOLMES

On a visit to Washington this month, Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff, confirmed what Asahi Shimbun and the Financial Times reported last December: China, he said, has officially committed itself to deploying aircraft-carrier task forces, a program that has evidently been under way since 2009. A Soviet flattop called Varyag, refitted and reportedly rechristened Shi Lang, may take to China’s "near seas" for sea trials sometime around July 1. Whenever it takes place, the maiden cruise of the Varyag will mark a milestone in China’s return to great power.

Any number of excellent technical studies of Beijing’s carrier plans have appeared in recent years, and much ink has been spilled debating the ship’s design characteristics: flight-deck configurations, launch and recovery systems, and propulsion plants. But to my mind, the best guide for figuring out what it all means in terms of China’s naval strategy isn’t the latest edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, but rather the two-plus-millennia-old History of the Peloponnesian War. In his chronicle of the protracted war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C., the Greek general and historian Thucydides proclaims that "three of the strongest motives" animating states’ actions are "fear, honor, and interest." Peoples must arm lest they fall victim to the "law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger." China’s aircraft-carrier ambitions can be seen in similar terms.

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