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itself to a militarily useful carrier until it could fill out the strike group without compromising its ability to fulfill other missions. Analysis here requires nuanced understanding of exactly what it takes to operate a carrier and what mixes of indigenous products and off-the-shelf technologies could be combined in a Chinese strike group. CVs are highly vulnerable even with supporting strike groups, especially from submarines of the United States and other regional com- petitors; the time and expense of deploying a carrier will be for naught if it can- not be protected.
As they currently stand, China’s capabilities are sufficient to give the United States pause if a Taiwan conflict scenario were to erupt, but truly controlling the battle space against a determined and capable adversary remains a Chinese aspi- ration, not a demonstrated capability.
THE ROLE OF A CARRIER IN CHINESE NAVAL DOCTRINE If China were to achieve any of the acquisition options outlined above and outfit a carrier, such a ship, while expensive and complicated, would indeed be a useful asset. It would have little role in a near-term Taiwan scenario, however, as land- based PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft could probably handle all of the required air operations across the narrow Taiwan Strait. Unless China is able to produce and incorporate a range of carriers in a cohesive and effective concept of operations, it is difficult to envision carriers as the centerpiece of Chinese naval doctrine in future decades. In his memoirs, Adm. Liu Huaqing described aircraft carriers as providing air coverage essential to offshore defense. An aircraft carrier would thus facilitate Chinese air operations in the Taiwan Strait by obviating the need for short-range fighters to sortie from land bases. This, Liu believed, would max- imize the utility of China’s existing aircraft.55 However, Liu made these state- ments in 1987, before modern precision weaponry. Indeed, a concomitant shift in operational scenarios may at least partially explain apparent indecision in China concerning aircraft carrier development. Though periodically consid- ered, it may have been repeatedly postponed in favor of submarines. Even Liu acknowledged that nuclear submarines are “one of the very most important pieces of naval equipment.”56 A senior Chinese official has further emphasized to the authors that “China will not try to compete with the U.S. in the open sea. Even twenty PRC carriers cannot compete with U.S. nuclear carriers.”57
That said, there are two general categories of potential carrier roles in the PLAN. The first is as a discrete capability to support secondary missions. The second is as a complement to China’s submarine-centered fleet. As to using car- riers as a discrete platform, the most basic motivation is prestige—particularly for a great power still seeking to right the wrongs of its devastating national weakness since 1840. As one Chinese analysis emphasizes,