Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:37 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 07:37 | SYDNEY

2009 won't be the year of the Chinese fleet, but 2059...


Sam Roggeveen


5 January 2009 09:41

Things have been pretty quiet on The Interpreter since Christmas Eve, but the Lowy Institute never rests, and some of you will have noticed that my colleague Rory Medcalf has been hard at work publishing op-eds in the International Herald Tribune and The Age on the larger significance of China's naval deployment to the Somali coast.

Coinciding with this deployment is a trickling of new information (helpfully collated here) about China's aircraft carrier ambitions. Despite the slow refurbishment in a Chinese shipyard of a second-hand Russian carrier, I've remained somewhat sceptical about the notion that China was making a wholesale commitment to fixed-wing naval aviation, for reasons alluded to by Hugh White, when he was quoted by The SMH on Christmas Eve:

"An aircraft carrier is a neat symbol of power but not necessarily a sign of substance, because they are so easy to sink," said Professor Hugh White, of the Australian National University and the Lowy Institute. "If I was an American I would be down on my knees and praying they would be dumb enough to build one."

I've heard similar comments from American strategists, because they know how expensive and complex it is to operate such ships properly. And so, on a 20-year view, I'd be inclined to agree with Hugh that this is good news for the US and its allies, in that China is going to have to pump massive resources into an asset that will not give it much strategic weight.

But as we've discussed before, China plays a long game. So taking a 50-year view, I'd say China's naval ambitions represent a huge challenge for Australia and its allies. I notice Rory seems to acknowledge this in his piece in The Age, though he also spots an opportunity:

At one level, this projection of China's new capability could unsettle the United States, India, Japan, Australia and other countries quietly worried by the possibility that Beijing one day might seek military pre-eminence in Asia. But it is also a window for those countries to forge practical naval ties with China before Beijing gets into the habit of solo military forays.