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[All Politics is Global] What China's Aircraft Carrier Drills Mean for its Asian Neighbors

The PLA's navy drill with aircraft carrier Shandong is another sign that China aims to deter or defeat any third-party intervention in the Indo-Pacific.

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China's first domestically built aircraft carrier Shandong in 2017. (Adapted from ©Tyg728 via Wikimedia Commons)

China's aircraft carrier Shandong conducted a major combat live-fire drill in the South China Sea waters on January 14, 2023. The Shandong task force carried out in-depth training featuring cross-domain, three-dimensional offensive and defensive combat. It included the participation of troops of multiple services in sea, air, and underwater. 

Noteworthy during the drill was the involvement of multiple J-15 fighter jets, which undertook night takeoff and landing training. Commissioned in December 2019, Shandong is the first  indigenously developed aircraft carrier (and second overall) of the People's Liberation Army. Its rising training levels and improved combat capability in rough sea conditions will also bolster the PLA's 2023 missions in the South China Sea.

Incidentally, in December 2022, China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning (originally classified as a training ship) carried out far-sea training exercises in the western Pacific Ocean. How effectively the PLA integrates emerging capabilities and platforms will likely determine its successes in this decade. In this light, the prospect of Shandong and Liaoning conducting joint training in the near future warrants careful assessment.

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The Chinese Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning and its fighters in the Pacific Ocean off Okinawa on May 15, 2022. (© The Ministry of Defense Joint Staff Office)

The Largest Navy in the World

The PLA-Navy is numerically the largest navy in the world. It has an overall battle force of approximately 340 ships and submarines, including nearly 125 major surface combatants. For that matter, its systematic placement of power projection also raises concerns about China further employing its military, economic, and diplomatic influence in a coercive manner.

The journey of the PLA's aircraft carriers reflects China's enduring military modernization program, which Deng Xiaoping initiated in December 1978. Having entered its 45th year, this military modernization has furthermore become the backbone of China's rise. While the PLA chose military policy planning as its focal objective from 1949 onwards, Mao Zedong's "people's war" (renmin zhanzheng) concept dominated China's military doctrinal thinking and politico-military discourse. 

That said, the PLA has grown enormously. From being a petite Chinese Communist Party organ to a guerrilla force comprising workers and peasants, to the PLA of today — a tri-Service military force dominating the Asian scene.

'Comprehensive National Power'

For almost half a century now, Asia's tectonic plates of power have been shifting. As a consequence, the possibility of China's return as the dominating and central actor in Asia must also be acknowledged. To achieve this, Beijing has diligently worked towards attaining "comprehensive national power" (zonghe guoli). It has accrued traditional attributes of power, including robust investments in modern hardware and technology. Moreover, a near-continuously rising military spending graph suggests the grave implications of Beijing's expanding regional prowess and influence.

Consequently, China's own politico-military diplomacy has steadily grown more omnidirectional and proactive. And it is further backed by a rapidly modernizing PLA. The most proverbial components of the Chinese way of war and diplomacy are visibly present. These are bing yi zha li (war is based on deception), shang-bing fa-mou (supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy), and also chu-qi zhi-sheng (win through unexpected moves). 

China first spelled out key elements concerning its military power in 2004, including its defense policy. Since then, its military strategy has been according additional priority to the PLA-Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force (formerly, Second Artillery Corps).

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The Chinese Navy Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Liaoning in the Pacific Ocean east of Okinawa on December 21-22, 2022. (© The Ministry of Defense Joint Staff Office)

China Threat Concerns Remain Justified

Asia's geostrategic paradigm remains perennially struck by security dilemmas flowing out of limited dissemination of military information by China. Meanwhile, the PLA's modernization and extension of China's spheres of influence are driving Beijing's grand strategy for Asia. Overall, the ultimate deciding factor will be the actual operational capability achieved by the PLA in this decade.

There is also a considerable sense of ambiguity that surrounds the military modernization of the PLA. Therefore, the concerns of China's Asian neighbors remain justified. The core of the debate zeroes down not on the future direction of China's expanding military power, but on how that power might be put to use in the existing geostrategic context of Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

China's political leadership is known to interpret any movement in and around areas that it describes as of "core interest" as an attempt to contain (ezhi) it. For that purpose, Beijing seeks to keep the involvement of key regional players at minimal levels. These include Japan, India, and Vietnam, among others.

Toward this objective, the PLA is aggressively developing capabilities to dissuade, deter, or, defeat third-party interventions in the Indo-Pacific region. The Pentagon's 2022 China Report notes that the PLA is furthermore developing its ability to conduct military operations deeper into the Indo-Pacific. In all, the reverberations of the impending "China threat" theory will only become more clamant in this decade.

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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.