China has developed some impressive defence capabilities in recent years. But one of its flagship achievements has had some notable technical problems in recent weeks.
As Robert Beckhusen explained at War is Boring, the Liaoning, China’s sole aircraft carrier, unexpectedly powered down during a sea trial last week. The vessel “appeared to suffer a steam explosion which temporarily knocked out the carrier’s electrical power system,” Beckhusen wrote, citing a Chinese-language media report (which is summarized at Asia Defence News).
Beckhusen notes these sorts of failures aren’t unheard of on Soviet-built carriers of the late 1980s — before it was the Lianoning, China’s carrier was called the Varyag, and carriers of its class haven’t aged particularly well.
“The 40,000-ton displacement Indian carrier Vikramaditya — first a Soviet Kiev-class carrier commissioned in 1987 and sold in 2004 — temporarily shut down at sea after a boiler overheated two years ago,” Beckhusen recalls, adding that “the 50,000-ton Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov goes nowhere without a tug escort in case her engines break down while underway.”
The Lianoning’s troubles reveal an important tension within China’s defence outlook.
China wants to be a major conventional power. No country goes through the trouble of acquiring a half-operable carrier, or developing simultaneous models of stealth jet, if it doesn’t have hopes of becoming one of the globe’s leading military powers. Simply pursuing these sorts of projects reveals an undeniable depth of commitment towards keeping pace with the US, which has multiple carrier groups in the Pacific at a given time, and has been developing its own advanced fighter, the troubled F-35, for years.
But China’s current military advantages are actually asymmetrical. In other words, capabilities meant to quickly and expediently close the gap between China and the US without having to build up China’s order of battle to identical level, even if that means breaking some broadly-accepted rules of how states should behave.
So China’s military hacks cyber targets throughout the world, and builds weaponry that few other countries would — things like anti-satellite systems, or missiles capable of carrying nearly a dozen nuclear warheads.
The fact that China even has an aircraft carrier is a reminder that Beijing wants to be a conventional power on par with the US. But the Lianoning’s recent problems also show China is still far behind the US as a military power — something that might only make its actions less predictable and more worrisome as Beijing progresses towards super-power status.
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