NAVAL WAR COLLEGE REVIEW
Of the issues that confront Chinese naval modernization, the most compre- hensive and far-reaching is the extent to which Beijing has faced a choice be- tween a navy focused on large-deck aviation and one based fundamentally on submarines. The answer is the simplest possible—not at all. China has yet to confront the issue in any meaningful way, and that is so because its technology, assets, and facilities are far from a state that might force the issue.
Whether it makes sense now for China actually to develop an aircraft carrier has apparently been the subject of considerable debate in China.1 Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television has quoted Song Xiaojun, editor in chief of Jianchuan Zhishi (Naval & Merchant Ships), as stating that a PLA faction advocates aircraft carrier development but must compete with elements urging submarine and aerospace industry development.2 One Chinese analyst states that Beijing, reflecting the interests of the submarine faction, is currently focused on developing new types of submarines in part precisely because they can attack carrier strike groups (CSGs), presumably those of the United States. Carriers present large targets and have weaker defenses than (and cannot easily detect) submarines. Submarines can attack CSGs with “torpedoes, sea mines, and missiles,”thereby rendering sea lines of communications and seaborne trade itself vulnerable to undersea at- tack.3 The analyst contends that China’s Type 093 and 094 submarines will in- crease the sea-denial capabilities, strategic depth, coastal defense, and long-range attack capability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).4 In a recent meeting with the authors, a senior Chinese official elaborated that al- though he had “been an advocate of aircraft carriers for many years because we need them,” until recently carriers had “not been the best use of national re- sources” because China “lacks an escort fleet,” thereby making any carrier a vul- nerable target. China has therefore invested instead in “submarines, mid-sized ships, and fighters [aircraft].”5
A t t h e s a m e t i m e , h o w e v e r , d i s m i s s i n g C h i n a ’ s c a r r i e r a s p i r a t i o n s c o u l d b myopic, given its rapid development of all other major aspects of its navy over the past few years. Submarines currently dominate China’s naval development, but they might not do so indefinitely. Contending that submarine force develop- ment is not a panacea for the PLAN, one Chinese analyst calls for “rethinking the theory that aircraft carriers are useless and [that one should] rely solely on assas- sin’s maces,” or asymmetric silver bullet–type weapons: “Allied ASW is very strong. . . . [T]he U.S. and Japan carefully monitor PLAN submarine activities. . . . PLAN submarines’ 533 mm torpedoes are insufficient to constitute a strong threat to a U.S. aircraft carrier [and] PLAN submarine-carried guided missiles are insufficient to wound an aircraft carrier.”6 e
The aforementioned Chinese official stated to the authors in 2006 that “China will have its own aircraft carrier” in “twelve to fifteen years.” In 2004,