China’s Aircraft Carrier Sails Into Blue Waters—A Sign of Growing Naval Power?

January 20, 2022 Updated: January 20, 2022

News Analysis

The Chinese Navy’s Liaoning carrier group followed international rules and performed what seemed like routine training in the Western Pacific last month. But it raises concerns regarding the regime’s ambitions and capabilities.

The Liaoning, China’s first commissioned carrier, returned to its homeport of Qingdao on Dec. 30 from deployment, after about 20 days of training maneuvers across the East China Sea. Its mission and training are important indicators that help analysts learn more about the regime’s capabilities and potential aggression.

The first major importance was the location of the training. The carrier force moved through the Miyako Strait, and is an important point between Japanese islands and Taiwan through which the regime’s forces would have to pass if they were to attack Japan and access the Pacific past the first island chain.

During the maneuvers of the Chinese carrier group, it conducted formation search and rescue, and tactical flight and air handling of its embarked J-15 fighters and Z-9 and Z-18 helicopters. Take-off and landing training was carried out in both the day and the night. And the group practiced air and anti-submarine warfare training, command and control operations, replenishment exercises, and force coordination.

None of those maneuvers sound particularly concerning on their own. And the Chinese forces followed all international rules during these procedures. But the location of their exercise, in a critical strait near Japan, and maneuvers have important implications. Overall, it suggests that the regime is more capable of achieving its aggressive ambition.

The Japanese are rightfully worried about any Chinese movements and consider this strait a key to their defenses. Even though they spend far less than China on military defense, they are considering additional anti-ship missiles and additional defenses in the region.

The second major importance comes from the ship itself. Launching carrier operations represents the newest efforts of Beijing to modernize its navy and arsenal. This means that as time goes on, the regime’s naval forces will have a greater amount of modern equipment and form a larger part of their armed forces with this carrier as one of the central pieces.

Epoch Times Photo
Warships and fighter jets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. (Reuters)

China is considered by many analysts as a traditional land power. At periods throughout its history, such as the Ming Dynasty, China had vast treasure fleets and extensive overseas trades. Many of the dynasties had large river fleets that fought massive engagements. But overall, the perception is a correct one. Instead of the previous goals of a brown-water navy such as protecting littorals, traditional search and rescue missions, or smuggling interdiction, the regime wants to expand its global role with these new and larger ships. The Liaoning is a clear part of this goal and every training exercise brings the Chinese communists (Chicoms) closer to their goal.

This blue-water navy is clearly aimed not at protecting China’s shores, but projecting power abroad. For example, the regime aggressively pursues its interests in the South China Sea by building up the islands, claiming sovereignty over them, and then treating freedom of the sea operations as provocations. The Chicoms also increase the range and sophistication of weapons systems such as new cruise missiles (dubbed “carrier killing”) and the hypersonic missiles, and continue to increase the amount of anti-air batteries—all to make operating in areas like the South China Sea too difficult for the blue-water navies of foreign powers, especially the United States.

Think of this as a more aggressive version of America at the turn of the 20th century. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt acted with vigor to expand the military and naval power, especially in the early 20th century to protect and promote America’s interests abroad. The mission of the Great White Fleet. The fleet exemplified America’s new power and its intended missions.

The comparison isn’t perfect for several reasons because America had a long tradition of allying with European naval powers, particularly Great Britain, which China does not. The regime also has a habit of preemptively seizing territory to solve disputes. Thus, the training missions of Chinese carriers suggest a more menacing version of the Great White Fleet.

Finally, the Chicoms’ use of carriers is also rather ironic in the face of their “carrier killing” missiles and the fear it provokes in the West. Many analysts warn that weapons fielded by the regime will make it so dangerous to operate near China that American naval forces won’t be able to enter. And they suggest that these missile swarms, as part of the regime’s defense, make the carrier obsolete.

China’s buildup of multiple carriers implies that officials in Beijing might advertise their missiles and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy as a game changer. But they still believe the carrier is an important logistical and symbolic platform to display their national strength. It reinforces the idea that the Chinese need more than a narrowly-focused new technology and must contest America’s dominance of blue waters with a fleet of its own. It might even suggest that the regime doesn’t believe in the capability of its weapons system to penetrate U.S. defenses. Or maybe it’s simply covering all of its bases.

Whatever the exact reason, the reforms and carrier exercises suggest China is serious about its new mission and increasingly able to achieve its goals.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Morgan Deane
Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine, a military historian, and a freelance author. He studied military history at Kings College London and Norwich University. Morgan works as a professor of military history at the American Public University. He is a prolific author whose writings include "Decisive Battles in Chinese History," "Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy," and the forthcoming, "Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Government." His military analysis has been published in Real Clear Defense and Strategy Bridge, among other publications.