By Peter J Brown
The United States-South Korea response to the recent sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan - supposedly by North Korea - includes the arrival of US Navy (USN) aircraft carrier USS George Washington along with other US warships at the South Korean port of Busan, much to China's chagrin.
"Invincible Spirit", a joint US-South Korea exercise that is about to get underway, will be sending North Korea a strong message - "Don't try this again."
Beijing is very irritable and nervous as a result.
"The moment is truly delicate," said Zhu Feng, a professor of International Studies and deputy director of international strategy center at Peking University in Beijing. "Beijing is also worried about the possibility of the situation to spill into a military collision with North Korea. That's why there is opposition from China. The joint exercise is rocking the boat." 
When the USS George Washington last visited Busan in late 2008, there were few Chinese maritime surveillance assets in space. In contrast, due to the launch of new Chinese satellites, the George Washington was closely watched as it sailed from its home base in Yokosuka in early July until its arrival in Busan almost two weeks later.
Just prior to the start of "Invincible Spirit", US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made it clear in Seoul that regardless of any eyes in the sky, China would not influence decisions made about the exercises.
"These exercises are off the coast of Korea, not off the coast of China," Gates said. "These are exercises like we have conducted for decades. We have conducted them in both the West and East seas, so there's nothing provocative about them at all. There should be no doubt in anybody's mind that we intend to exercise in both seas." 
China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will soon deploy its own carriers, but among other things, China must decide what kind of carriers to build, and, if the US model for naval warfare with its dependence on huge super-carriers and carrier battle groups (CBGs) is the right one for China.
If nothing else, having a US carrier so close at hand will focus China's attention on very important carrier-related matters.
More than a decade has passed since a US aircraft carrier sailed into the Yellow Sea. Things are vastly different now. For example, China has had an opportunity to study the US "AirSea Battle" (ASB) concept in 2010 which merges air and naval forces into a single, more effective fighting unit. ASB might be adapted by China which cannot divorce the current movements of the George Washington from the efforts of the US to refine and implement ASB. 
"The acquisition of an aircraft carrier and carrier aviation was something that was clearly an ambition and an objective of the PLAN," said Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, at a 2009 news conference in Beijing. "The advent of an aircraft carrier on the part of the PLAN really does not change the nature of our operations at all." 
James Bussert, co-author of "PLAN Combat Systems Technology 1949-2010", which will be published by the US Naval Institute Press next spring, is convinced that China does not want to duplicate the world policeman role that USN CBG's serve.
"China's goals do not require CBGs. They are achieving their goals via economic and political means in South America and Africa, and the power of the US Navy is not a factor," said Bussert.
While CBGs might give China certain advantages in Taiwan, in the South China Sea and along the routes used by ships transporting oil to China from the Middle East and Africa, the costs and the fact that CBGs are not required in order for China to achieve its national goals are distinct disadvantages.
"They do not have a superpower face-off agenda that the USSR had," said Bussert. "China believes the USN will retain its successful CBGs."
The first PLAN carrier is expected to have the keel laid by the end of 2010. A second hull should follow within a year. Both will rely on a ski-jump flight deck configuration, and not the steam catapult-based launch systems used on US carriers.
As for China's purchase in 1998 of the 67,000-ton Ukrainian-built Varyag, it is currently being fitted in the port of Dalian. It will likely serve as a carrier training platform for pilots flying J-15 aircraft until the indigenous PLAN carriers are commissioned around 2014.
As this work proceeds, retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, who serves as a senior advisor at the Virginia-based Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, also does not envision China acquiring enormous super-carriers.
"China is more likely to have smaller, less capable carriers suited to air support of surface action groups that are carrying out missions such as sea-lane security beyond the range of land-based air from Chinese bases," said McVadon. "The USN is not a model for the PLAN. Chinese leaders do not contemplate an ability to conduct massive air strikes against naval forces or targets ashore. Carrier aviation as done by the USN does not serve China's purposes. Having organic air available to PLAN units trying to deter attacks on tankers en route to China does make sense."
Because the PLA does not provide any official data on its future strategic naval modernization plans, US and Western experts must always rely on vast array of sources to determine what the PLAN has underway.
"A series of Hong Kong and Japanese newspaper articles from January 2009 citing Chinese shipbuilding and military sources indicated that the PLA was going to build two new Varyag style carriers, and then two larger nuclear-powered carriers," said Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. "In the past, other PLA sources have indicated to US visitors their desire to build up to six carriers."
Over time, China will become more strategically savvy and will introduce conventional military power projection elements into arenas where it has long built significant elements of political and economic power.
"Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa are all areas where by the 2020s the PLA could be employing displays or usage of military power to sway political outcomes that benefit China's economic and political interests," said Fisher. "However, we should also expect that China will seek to make military deployments to South America a 'routine' element of its expanding political and economic power networks there."
This might explain what Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim had in mind when he issued a heads up in May 2009. Then, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva flew to Beijing to formalize plans for a joint Brazil-China pilot training program to be staged aboard Brazil's new carrier. The current status of this program is unclear. 
According to Toshi Yoshihara, associate professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island, China will make prudent investments in a wide of variety naval capabilities as part of a very deliberate process of fleet experimentation for their surface forces.
"They are acquiring small batches of the same class of ships to work out their preferences and needs. They are not going to bankrupt themselves by overspending on carriers," said Yoshihara. "They have learned from the Soviet experience and have pledged never to repeat the fatal mistake of engaging in unwinnable arms races."
China is still grappling with its approach to the constraints imposed by the so-called "first island chain" which extends south from the Japanese archipelago down to Indonesia.
"Many Chinese analysts conceive of the island chain as a physical barrier and, more importantly, they see most countries that occupy the island chain, particularly Japan, as either friendly to the US and/or hostile to China," said Yoshihara. "Their main concern is how to break through the island chain in times of crisis or war. Naval penetrations by the PLAN through the waterways along the Ryukyu Islands since 2004 should be understood as exercises in breaking out of the maritime straitjacket."
For this and other reasons, building carriers is deemed far less of a priority than the PLAN's current and ongoing submarine buildup.
"Many Chinese strategists clearly understand that a naval force structure centered on the carrier would play to US strengths," said Yoshihara.
Back in May 2007, therefore, Admiral Timothy Keating, former commander of the US Pacific Command, caught the Chinese off guard perhaps when he implied that the US might be willing to provide assistance to China if it proceeded with the construction of its carriers.
Keating made the offer after he tried to convey the complexity of the carrier universe to Vice Admiral Wu Shengli, who is commander of the PLAN.
Major General Yang Chunchang of China's Academy of Military Sciences, for example, told the China-run Hong Kong daily, Wen Wei Po, that he "was concerned about [the implications of] Keating's remarks." 
Some Chinese were concerned that the US might foil the Chinese carrier program, while others wondered why the US would make such an offer at a time when the US was so intent upon halting the sale of advanced weaponry to China by the European Union.
US offers aside, an established two-step plan which involves China's initial acquisition of medium-sized aircraft carriers, first, may now be in motion. This will enable the PLAN to gain significant operational experience, and thus set the stage for the acquisition of very large carriers later on. 
China's development of a new generation of land-based anti-ship missiles - many expected to see a test firing of China's new DF-21 medium-range, anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) during China's recent naval exercise in the East China Sea - suggests that while China slowly inches ahead with its carrier program, the PLAN is favoring a missile-centric strategy.
"Missiles will not replace warships. PLAN warships have relied on large, long-range cruise missiles ever since the early 1950's, continuing to today. The few air and submarine platforms can never provide the multi-purpose capabilities of surface warships," said Bussert.
Missile technologies may shift the offensive-defensive balance in favor of the defense, but this is not a new trend.
"From a historical perspective, changes in the offense-defense balance are cyclical," said Yoshihara. "World War II brought mobility back to sea power. Perhaps we are swinging back in the other direction."
Again, this bolsters the argument that many are making about the fact that undersea platforms will emerge as the most suitable alternatives for the future as a result.
"This brings up basic questions about sea control, a staple of US naval power. Would such a move require us to rethink or redefine what we mean by sea control?" asks Yoshihara.
The US which is already deploying its prototype "Prompt Global Strike" platform in space and placing lasers on its warships eventually will devise other means for countering advanced anti-ship missiles and even ASBMs, especially because this technology will soon be acquired by Iran and North Korea as well.
"It is also necessary for the US to develop new multi-role medium range missiles that can provide missile defense and surface strike, even anti-ship capabilities. Such missiles should be sold to US allies, to facilitate a near-term maritime missile balance, so that any PLA use of ASBMs would guarantee the immediate loss of its surface fleet," said Fisher.
McVadon remains optimistic that everyone will focus on the bigger picture, and that the USN and PLAN will emerge as partners on the high seas.
"It is more likely that USN forces 10 years from now will be operating with a PLAN moderate-sized carrier chasing pirates or providing disaster relief somewhere west of Malacca than it is for USN forces attacking a PLAN carrier in a Taiwan conflict," said McVadon. If this peaceful partnership is not soon viewed by both countries as a more acceptable outcome, "then we need to devote enormous effort to change things."
Speaking to a few hundred US troops in South Korea prior to the beginning of "Invincible Spirit", Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff, said that he was downright concerned about what China is doing. Mullen highlighted China's "fairly significant investment" in high-end equipment including carriers, satellites, and anti-ship missiles. However, it was the absence of transparency, not the equipment itself that troubled Mullen most of all.
"It is difficult to figure out where they're headed," he said.
Chances are, they will soon be heading to sea aboard their new carrier.
1. China has different view on Cheonan, Korea Times, Jul 18, 2010. 2. Gates: Military exercise is no threat to China, Stars & Stripes, Jul 20, 2010. 3. Gates closed out of China, Asia Times Online, Jun 12, 2010. 4. US admiral: China naval strength no surprise, People's Daily, Apr 20, 2009. 5. Using BRIC to build at sea, IPRIS Viewpoints, Jan, 2010. 6. China's war chest, UPI, May 23, 2007. 7. China's Aircraft Carrier Ambitions: An Update, Naval War College Review, Winter 2010.
Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.