Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:21 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:21 | SYDNEY

How to spot Chinese military power projection


Sam Roggeveen


19 June 2008 16:02

In relation to my last post, I should note that the cross-posting initiative with World Politics Review will not inhibit the regular back and forth we have. And to that end, my thanks to Judah at WPR for pointing me in the direction of this essay from the Washington Quarterly on China's military ambitions, by M. Taylor Fravel.

I agree that area denial and a capability to reclaim Taiwan (or should that just be 'claim'? These are deep waters) are China's main priorities, and that a sustainable power projection capability is some way off. It is particularly nice to see, in the closing paragraph, some indicators we should look for to spot the growth of Chinese power projection capability. And, more to the point, a suggestion on what we should not look for: namely, aircraft carriers.

The half-finished ex-Soviet carrier purchased by China is a constant subject of interest by China military enthusiasts, and is watched very closely by governments around the region. But as Fravel implies, it is largely a distraction. If Varyag was ever made operational it would be little more than an instrument of prestige (and a big, fat target). Of course, the Chinese play a long game, so the first carrier could just be a way to  learn about how to build and operate a much bigger fleet, which would be a serious power projection instrument. But that's decades away, and Fravel is right to say that for the short and medium term, we should look instead for China to acquire a bigger fleet of transport and aerial refuelling aircraft, space-based surveillance and big replenishment ships.

I would part with him only on the subject of China's bomber fleet. The H-6 is indeed a very old aircraft, but China is building newer versions that can carry Tomahawk-like cruise missiles. If these aircraft are made air-refuelable they can operate effectively for many years yet at strategic ranges. As the US knows with its B-52s, the age of the airframe is pretty insignificant. It's just a bomb truck, and what really matters is the sensors and weapons.