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CHINA’S AIRCRAFT CARRIER DILEMMA

Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson

C hina’s national leadership is facing a dilemma that has bedeviled many other powers in modern history. The challenge—an especially difficult one in an era of rapid technological change—is discerning when and how to spend finite military budgets on new technology, organization, doctrine, and force structure. The history of navies trying to anticipate and prepare for the next war is replete with both positive and negative analogies to which Beijing can turn. These include Germany’s attempts prior to World Wars I and II to strike the right balance between fleet-on-fleet and guerre de course and missing on both counts; Japan’s pattern prior to World War II of innovating with aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare but keeping the battleship firmly at the center of its naval doctrine; and even China’s own naval embarrassments in the 1884–85 Sino-French War and the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War, in which poor standard- ization, divided political and military leadership, and slow mobilization cost the Qing dynasty two very expensive fleets.

The numerous sources available suggest that these issues weigh heavily on China’s naval strategists today. Getting the answers right in the near term will appropriately shape China’s force structure and inform training and doctrine in anticipation of the most likely scenarios. Obviously, analyses regarding the na- ture of the next war, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the possible belligerents, and the characteristics of the likely theater will determine those an- swers. In other words, strategic focus and concentration on the nature of the next war can spur modernization. Taiwan scenarios certainly dominate Beijing’s attention, but while they narrow the decision sets, they do not resolve the central dilemma facing China’s maritime strategists.

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