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concerning key accessories aboard carriers. Under arrangements made by the PLA General Staff Department and [COSTIND], findings obtained from the inspection trips, materials introduced from abroad, and the results of our own preliminary studies were analyzed, studied, and appraised. This enabled many leaders and experts within and outside the military to enhance their understanding of the large systems engineering [required] for [developing] carriers and ship-borne aircraft.22
In his retirement Liu was to recall that he had “fulfilled [his] responsibility for making some plans for developing an aircraft carrier for China.”23 In 2005, re- tired vice admiral Zhang Xusan stated, “I certainly advocate having an aircraft carrier soon. . . . When I was [deputy commander of the PLA] Navy I advocated that, and at that time Commander . . . Liu Huaqing advocated it too, but for many reasons it was postponed. I believe that it will not be too long before we will have an aircraft carrier. When, what year, I can’t say, because I’m not in charge of that matter now. But I feel we will have one in the not too distant future.”24
It remains unclear to what extent Liu’s advocacy of carriers, which he termed the “core of the Navy’s combined battle operations” and considered a symbol of overall national strength that many other countries had already developed, has actually influenced PLAN development.25 As Liu himself was careful to empha- size, “the development of an aircraft carrier is not only a naval question, it is also a major question of national strategy and defense policy. It must emerge from the exact position [of] and prudent strategy [concerning] comprehensive na- tional strength and overall national maritime strategy.”26 In light, however, of both Beijing’s determination to be respected universally as a great power and its growing maritime interests, the Chinese navy has clearly been contemplating various alternatives for developing aircraft carriers—research that provides crit- ical indicators of Beijing’s emerging maritime strategy.
Overseas New Construction When it comes to obtaining a working carrier, China has several options, but each largely limits what the carrier could be used for. Buying a big-deck, Western strike platform akin to the Enterprise or Nimitz has apparently never been seri- ously considered. It would simply not be within the realm of the possible to ac- quire such a ship from the West—including, apparently, even Russia, which China reportedly approached in the early 1990s.27 Moreover, operating a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier or equivalent is among the most complex tasks of modern warfare. Matching American or French expertise at large-deck power projection would involve incredible cost and many years of trial and error. China may be weighing the costs and benefits of vertical-and-short-takeoff- and-landing (VSTOL) and catapult aircraft carriers, the latter of which could support larger aircraft with greater payloads. Specialists at China’s Naval Engi- neering University and Naval Aeronautical Institute have conducted research on