This past week has seen developments for the military of the People’s Republic of China that could eventually alter the balance of power between states that are engaged with it in disputes in the South and East China Seas.
On Wednesday, new pictures were released of a Chinese stealth fighter prototype taxiing near a testing and development site.
The press leak that revealed the existence of the plane, an aircraft thought to be the Shenyang J-21/J-31 outcome of the country’s domestic stealth fighter jet competition, corresponded with the visit of American defense secretary Leon Panetta and clearly showed a design different from last year’s J-20. According to experts familiar with fifth-generation fighter design, the plane shares airframe characteristics with fighters like the American F-22 Raptor, even down to the twin engine design of the platform’s rear.
However, its modest size has caused many commentators to liken it to the smaller and carrier launchable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The plane’s obviously smaller profile, though potentially the sign of an export model in waiting or another unknown feature, could mean shorter runway requirements and a natural role as a carrier-based attack platform.
This observation in particular has picked up steam in the blogging and defense analytical communities because of official reports coming out of China later in the week that the country’s first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet ship Varyag, has officially been handed over to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
The nearly 1,000 foot long ship has been completely refitted and will, according to the Chinese government, be operated in the near future as a training and research platform for the navy.
Having successfully completed several shakedown and testing cruises near China’s southern territorial waters, the ship is expected to put to sea in the near future as a testing platform for carrier-based aircraft developed domestically.
The resulting combination of these recent developments for China’s military-industrial complex could be further destabilization of conflict resolution and confidence building mechanisms in the South and East China Seas.
The reconstruction and near term launching of China’s first aircraft carrier has itself been a constant source for concern for regional neighbors in recent years. The mere ability to field a limited naval airpower capability strengthens China’s military position in the region’s various ongoing maritime disputes.
But it has been generally been accepted that the Varyag will not constitute an organic carrier battle group strike capability and therefore won’t be a major improvement in capabilities. Indeed, it is widely thought that the Chinese navy’s lack of organized training experience and inability to provide appropriate ancillary support from other fleet units will translate merely to a large ship that can field a few planes.
Yet the emergence of new potential platforms that could be fielded in the medium to long term can have just as much of an effect on regional security calculations as the present dynamic.
Per statements made by Chinese army commanders in 2009 and 2011, a fifth-generation stealth fighter and a domestically produced aircraft carrier could be put into service by 2017 and 2020, respectively. If the two platforms were to be fielded together, states in Southeast Asia could find themselves facing an even greater imbalance of capabilities than would likely otherwise exist, even given the China’s continuing military development.
Stealth fighters would hold an advantage over the legacy planes flown by most of the countries engaged in maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas while seagoing launch platforms could increase China’s ability to dominate airspace beyond the traditional reach of its land based air forces.
In other words, a sea launched stealthy air wing would give China an area penetration capacity alongside its ballistic and other area denial capabilities. Without direct American involvement in the region, such advanced Chinese carrier forces would be virtually unopposed. Even the advanced naval forces of Japan, constrained as they presently are by the country’s pacifist constitution, would be unable to project a similar amount of power beyond the range of the country’s land based fighter forces.
Although observations about the nature of China’s new stealth fighter or the operation of its imminent aircraft carrier capability are unlikely to be confirmed or disproven in the near future, it is undoubtedly the case that such developments increasingly provoke institutional and military responses from China’s neighbors.
Moreover, countries like the Philippines and Vietnam may increasingly feel the encroaching shadow of a future in which China is even more able to wield influence in its near abroad and be inclined toward resolutions that would prevent, if violently, any losses in sovereign integrity.
Considering historical precedent on the subject of states coping with the expansion of nearby competitors, it is difficult to see how this will be anything other than detrimental to conflict avoidance mechanisms going forward.