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helicopter carriers serving as antisubmarine-warfare platforms, for that specific scenario. To China’s south and southwest, however, especially along the lengthy sea lines of communication, aircraft carriers of all variations could play more useful operational and diplomatic roles. A carrier as a discrete capability fulfill- ing secondary roles, such as sea-lane security and humanitarian and disaster re- lief missions, is therefore the most likely trajectory.
Nevertheless, once China has multiple carriers in operation, there is no rea- son to think that new technologies and doctrines will preclude Beijing from linking the carrier to its more capable and far more numerous submarines. As many as twelve to fifteen helicopter carriers or a mix of modest carriers and somewhat larger variants would represent a significant shift in ASW capability and may better complement the submarine-centered navy, which China is clearly developing at present, than would large-deck fixed-wing alternatives. With the wealth of new models of carriers and operational concepts available to watch, the carrier discussion in China—while still theoretical—has matured. On paper at least, the Chinese have avoided the pitfall of spending too much on the wrong platforms at the wrong time. It remains to be seen, however, exactly what place aircraft carrier development will have in what has been a prolonged, publicized, and increasingly successful attempt by China to become a maritime power.
One thing is clear: Beijing will continually search for the most effective plat- forms with which to assert control over its maritime periphery. As a recent arti- cle in the PLA Daily emphasizes,
We must absolutely no longer be the least bit neglectful regarding the “world without markers” of our vast sea area, our blue frontier. We must no longer customarily as- sert that the total area of our national territory is 9.6 million square kilometers. To that we must add our sea area of 3 million square kilometers, our blue frontier. Who will protect this vast blue frontier? How should it be protected? Those are questions which every Chinese person, and especially every member of the Chinese armed forces, must ponder carefully. During China’s era of weakness and degeneration in the past, in the face of power backed up by gunboats, we lost many things which we should not have lost. It’s a different era now. We must not lose anything. We must fight for every inch of territory, and never give up an inch of sea area! We must build a powerful Navy, and protect our coastal defenses, our islands, our vast blue frontier, and everything within the scope of our maritime rights and interests. Cherishing and protecting the seas and oceans is the sacred duty and responsibility of our republic’s military personnel. Every intangible “boundary marker” and “sentry post” at sea must always be clearly visible in the minds of every one of us.113