China’s Aircraft Carrier: A Symbol of Its Global Rise

As much as the world’s attention is focused on the loss of the United States’ AAA rating and the related long-term consequences for its global dominance, the PRC seems to be taking full advantage of the politics of symbolism related to its military modernization.  Its decision to show off its first aircraft carrier is one such overwhelming example.  It was purchased in 1998 for $20 million from the Ukraine by a Chinese company to be used as a floating casino.  It was then retrofitted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy (PLAN) to be used for scientific research and training.  As such, it is quite primitive in its technological capabilities, compared to the 11 awesome aircraft carriers owned by the US Navy.  It is also an open fact that it would take several years for the PRC to develop technological capabilities and human training to operate an aircraft carrier.  However, the fact that China has an aircraft carrier speaks volumes about the seriousness its leadership attaches to transforming their country into a naval power of global reach. 

In this symbolic exercise of power, substantive aspects play a minor role, especially at a time when the symbolic aspects of America’s decline are becoming so pronounced.  In another example of the exercise of symbolism – and also as a demonstration of one-upmanship – Taiwan also decided to capture China’s attention by releasing the picture of its own ‘aircraft carrier killer,’ an anti-ship missile (Hsiung Feng III).  Taiwan’s message was certainly not lost on China.  Beijing has been displaying its own inventory of ASMs for quite some time, to signal to the United States how prepared it is becoming to deter any threats related to America’s intervention to stop China’s potential military takeover of Taiwan.

The real message associated with these symbolic maneuvers is not to underscore the mounting threat of a military conflict between the PRC and the lone superpower.  In fact, if China were to recall the assertion of its grand strategist Sun Tzu – “know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster” – it would do everything to avoid even going to the brink of war, much less waging war.

Besides, looking at the escalating economic problems of the United States and China’s continued economic rise, things could not be better for the latter.  The United States appears bent on expediting its own decline from the top echelon of global power.  As the table below points out, the estimated cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will reach $1.29 trillion by the end of fiscal year 2011.

If US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq continues, and if its defense-related research and development decelerates as has been reported, then China will have an easier time narrowing the gap between its military modernization and the military prowess of the US military.  And having aircraft carriers for its navy has long been considered a vital requirement for narrowing that gap by the PLAN.  China’s naval officials are reported to be interested in developing “a maximum of three carriers to main a constant sea presence…”  Even when the PLAN develops such capabilities, it will still be no match for the US Navy, whose global presence is guaranteed through its ownership of 11 aircraft carriers.  But that will be a good start in the right direction from China’s perspective.


billions of budgeted dollars
Operation FY2001+ 2002 FY20031 FY20042 FY20053 FY2006 FY2007 FY2008 FY2009 FY2010 FY2011 Total



































to allocate















“The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” Amy Belasco, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, RL33110, p. CRS�9).  Source:

Going beyond the symbolic aspects of having an aircraft carrier, the development itself speaks volumes about China’s resolve to develop a blue-water navy.  Right now, its focus is not on matching US naval capabilities.  Rather, the PRC is concentrating on increasing its global presence and showing its resolve to be self-reliant against the threat of piracy around the Gulf of Eden – through which China’s oil supplies pass – to secure “approaches to Taiwan and deny the US access to it,” “to deny the US and other near Asian neighbors access to the South China Sea,” “to protect China’s sea lane lines of communication,” and to “hinder generally others sea lane lines of communication.”  Given the Chinese aspirations to become the superpower of the future, those are important objectives.  China will be very curious to see how the declining superpower responds.


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