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Tag: "china"

SRBMs Shifting Straits Balance Towards PRC?

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

A few years ago, a student of mine worked out the implications of a large scale Chinese SRBM (short range ballistic missile) attack on Taiwan. He argued that the attack was, based on the historic resilience of regimes to coercion by air assault, unlikely by itself to break the will of the Taiwanese government to resist. It won’t surprise readers of this blog to learn that I agreed with this conclusion. However, he didn’t really go into the implications of a conventional ballistic missile attack launched against military targets on Taiwan, in particular Taiwan’s air bases and fighter aircraft. At Foreign Policy, David Shlapak has an article based on the recent RAND study he co-authored on the likely course and outcome of a PRC-Taiwan conflict. Shlapak argues that a preparatory ballistic missile assault on Taiwan would stand a very high chance of devastating the Taiwanese air force, and of giving China air superiority in any conflict. GPS guidance has rendered SRBMs radically more accurate, improving their ability to strike air bases and other military infrastructure.

Although I haven’t read the RAND study, the argument seems pretty compelling to me. I would suggest a few caveats:

  1. It seems highly unlikely that a PRC-Taiwan war would result from a surprise Chinese attack. Rather, Taiwanese forces would probably be at high alert. This means that a larger percentage of the fighter force would be aloft at time of attack. However, if the airbases themselves are rendered unusable, this doesn’t matter very much.
  2. Shlapak suggests that US air bases would also be vulnerable to Chinese SRBM or MRBM attack. While this is technically possible, I suspect the Chinese would be deeply reluctant to escalate the conflict through attacks on US targets, including airbases in friendly countries. While we couldn’t necessarily expect to have full freedom of action from Guam or elsewhere, I doubt that US forces would fall victim to a surprise attack.

Shlapak argues that dispersing assets, hardening shelters, and increasing missile defense capabilities are the only real options that the Taiwanese have. In this context, I concur with the last point; missile defense may be nearly useless in a strategic nuclear sense, but it’s helpful against a large scale conventional ballistic missile attack. However, SRBMs are cheaper than interceptors; it seems likely that the Chinese will simply be able to overwhelm any Taiwanese system with sheer numbers.

I think that the takeaway is this; there was a long window in which Taiwan was probably capable of preventing a Chinese invasion, even assuming no US intervention. That period is closed, or closing; the balance between Taiwan and China, sans the development of Taiwanese nuclear weapons, is moving inexorably in China’s direction. This does not mean that war is inevitable, as China has lots of fabulous reasons for not launching a war of conquest. I think that it does, however, mean that China has greater leverage over Taiwan on a whole host of issues of dispute between the two states. It also means that the United States faces a more difficult choice regarding its level of engagement if the PRC-Taiwan relationship goes hot.

The World Cannot Allow a Nuclear China…

[ 0 ] July 8, 2009 |

Speaking of Chiang Kai Shek, I have a short article up at Foreign Policy comparing the Chinese and (purported) Iranian nuclear weapon programs:

Even the Soviet bloc worried that the Chinese were crazy. The causes and course of the Sino-Soviet split are complex, but nuclear weapons were near the heart of the dispute. Chinese brinksmanship in the 1958 Quemoy crisis prompted the Soviets to suspend nuclear cooperation. In a ridiculously entertaining series of pamphlets issued between 1959 and 1963, China and the Soviet Union sparred over the role that nuclear weapons were to play in defense of the socialist world. The Chinese displayed on almost casual disregard for the atomic bomb, dismissing it as a “paper tiger,” and argued that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was a fantasy. The exasperated Soviets responded with a question: “We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermonuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?”


[ 0 ] July 8, 2009 |

I expect that future generations will view this as my crowning contribution to American public discourse.


[ 0 ] July 6, 2009 |

Andy McCarthy ingests more than his daily allowance of crazy pills (and let me tell you, that’s a lot of crazy pills):

The Wall Street Journal (as flagged in the NRO web briefing) reports on rioting in China by Uighur “students” that has left scores dead and hundreds wounded. The “students,” described elsewhere in the story as from a “predominantly Muslim ethnic group[, which has] long chafed at restrictions on their civil liberties and religious practices imposed by a Chinese government fearful of political dissent,” expressed their dissent by torching cars and buses, as well as — according to accounts of some witnesses to state-controlled media — rampaging “with big knives stabbing people” on the street.

No reason for non-Muslims in Bermuda, Palau, or the United States to worry, though. The lovable Uighurs are merely trying to address “economic and social discrimination.” Once they get social justice, I’m sure they’ll stop.

It’s hard to figure out where to start… for one, there was a time at which movement conservatives were mildly skeptical of the claims made in Chinese state media. Apparently this is no longer the case. There was also a time at which conservatives would have celebrated a provincial rebellion against our communist superpower existential foe*, but apparently there was a memo or something to the effect that “Anyone from any ethnic group that has members who have ever been incarcerated in Guantanamo deserves the swift, brutal justice of the Chinese state. Pass it on.” I also like how McCarthy has tossed aside the values of democracy and self-determination just to score points against liberals; this doesn’t even rise to the level of coherence displayed by Chucky “Bring back the Shah” Krauthammer.

The rest of the Corner crew, it appears, has tactfully declined comment.

Hat tip to Chet.

*of the week

The Mao Zedong?

[ 0 ] June 27, 2009 |

Fascinating; the unscientific popular choice for the name of China’s first aircraft carrier is Mao Zedong:

But which was the runaway favorite in two polls conducted earlier this month? Mao Zedong.

He may have been a monster to you and me. The number of Chinese who died as a result of his policies runs into the tens of millions. But to many, if not most people here, Mao remains – for all his faults, even when they are admitted – the father of the nation; his memory is endowed with supernatural powers.

Indeed, his name alone “has deterrent force,” believe some of the respondents, according to the International Herald Leader, a daily paper owned by the official Xinhua news agency, which commissioned one of the polls.

But there could be a drawback. “Aircraft carriers are used in battle, and they could get damaged,” the Herald Leader points out. “If that happened to a carrier named Mao Zedong, it might hurt ordinary people’s feelings.”

In such a naming scheme, would Mao be followed by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping? Then maybe Chen Yun and Yang Shangkun? Would an aircraft carrier serve as the ultimate redemption for Liu Shaoqi or (less likely) Lin Biao? Or is Mao singular enough that you could name the rest after cities or provinces? A note of caution to the Chinese; you start out by giving an aircraft carrier the name of a legendary leader, and you end up with the Carl Vinson and the John C. Stennis.

Via Galrahn.

Tank Man and Tank Commander

[ 7 ] June 16, 2009 |

What follows is a long, largely unoriginal rumination on the state, coercion, the Odessa Steps, and Tank Man. Skip to the end for trivial observations about the current situation in Iran. Or just skip entirely…

The modern nation state is an extremely efficient killing machine. We know this from our Tilly; the nation-state replaced its competitors, such as empires and city-states, because it could develop and support institutions of internal and external domination. The nation-state successfully extracted a large surplus from its population, which it transformed into the coercive means for acquiring even more internal surplus and for waging external wars.

The most common interaction we have with the state is thus; the state demands property that we regard as our own, and if we refuse to hand this property over it sends men with guns to our house. If we resist these men with guns, they imprison us. If we resist too effectively, they kill us. This is true of every modern nation-state. Liberal democracies differ from authoritarian states in that they allow us to complain loudly about the process, to minimize its arbitrariness, and to have some (very) small say in how our property is reallocated. This difference isn’t trivial, but it isn’t as large as normally assumed.

The modern nation-state is nevertheless tolerable because it substantially reduces private coercion (replacing it with less arbitrary public coercion), creates a relatively safe space in which commerce and the production of wealth can be undertaken, provides regulation necessary for the conduct of a modern (socialist or capitalist) economy, provides social services, and because it creates a sense of identity and political efficacy. Its murderous tendencies notwithstanding, I’d rather live in a nation-state than not, and would prefer a more complete and capable state to the rump that libertarians envision.

The long century (1789-1914) can be regarded as the period of consolidation of the institutions of the modern nation-state. The last competitors were either eliminated or co-opted, small statelets were amalgamated, and the lower and middle classes were fully integrated into the domestic processes of the state. The perfection of these institutions, as much as anything else, allowed European states to conquer the rest of the world, and to apply the institutions of the modern-state to heretofore unfamiliar populations. This was, it is fair to say, a bloody process. It saw untold colonial depredation, from the conquests of Africa, South Asia, and North America to the “opening” of China and Japan. The Wars of the French Revolution exceeded any previous conflicts in size and destruction, largely because of the increased extractive and warmaking capacity of the state. Still, the old ways were not wholly replaced; in Europe, at least, much of the traditional elite continued to hold the reins of the state.

This process of perfection would culminate in 1914, when the truly destructive nature of the state would be unleashed. Internally and externally, the major states of the world set about the task of murdering as many people as possible. Eighteen million or so were killed in World War I. In 1917, the Russians had a Revolution designed to hand their state to right thinking people, and those right thinking people murdered dozens of millions more. Between 1939 and 1945, the German state murdered six million Jews, along with roughly twice as many Poles and Russians. The Japanese state murdered about 20 million Chinese. The good guys in that war (and I use the term with no ironic intent) saw fit to incinerate millions of German and Japanese citizens by dropping bombs on them as they slept. Following World War II, the Chinese state killed some fifty million of its own citizens, concentrated in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The various combatants in the Vietnam War killed about 4 million altogether, and the Khmer Rouge killed probably 2 million. All of this was made possible by the institutions of the modern nation-state; its extractive capacity, its efficient bureaucracy, and its ability to maximize military power.

The modern nation-state could murder at such an efficient rate because competent, well educated, healthy, efficient people staffed its bureaucracies. The medical systems of the modern state kept its soldiers and policemen healthy and capable. The educational institutions created unprecedented literacy, which maximized its killing capacity; soldiers and police who can read can also fight more effectively. The microfoundation of the story of the twentieth century is, thus, that the state created citizens, and those citizens made possible the murder of vast quantities of other citizens. This isn’t a particularly new idea; it’s more or less Arendt, and it’s something that I talked about in the context of Battle of Algiers a few years ago. Twentieth century evil is the efficiency and enthusiasm of capable bureaucrats.

Tank Man was not the first person to stand up to the coercive power of the state. People defying other people holding guns has a long and distinguished history, from Napoleon forward. The survival of Tank Man and of every other such protester depends on a decision made by the state employee carrying the gun. What distinguishes the few moments near Tiananmen from the Odessa Steps, thus, is not the heroism of the protester, but rather the decision by the tank commander not to run Tank Man down, or to shoot him. The video has always been more compelling to me than the shot; the tank commander actively tries to carry out his job without running over tank man, and eventually decides to hold up an entire tank column while Tank Man clambers on to his vehicle.

I feel that I can understand why Tank Man risked his life to stand in front of the tank column. I have less of a sense of why the tank commander decided to stop. For all I know, Tank Man may have been Tank Commander’s brother. Tank Commander may have been afraid that his superiors would have been pissed if he ran over a guy while cameras might be watching. He may not have wanted innocent blood on his hands, or on the treads of his tank. He may have sympathized with the demonstrators; perhaps his father or mother had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Or perhaps he identified the Tiananmen demonstrators with the Cultural Revolution, and sympathized with them. I really have no idea.

The thing is, Tank Commander is far more dangerous than Tank Man. Tank Man can simply be shot; most seem to believe that Tank Man was later executed, far out of sight of the international media. The regime survives if Tank Man dies, even if the death of Tank Man isn’t the optimal outcome. The regime dies, however, if Tank Commander refuses to run over Tank Man. Eisenstein used the Odessa Steps to demonstrate the corruption of the Czarist regime, but the regime didn’t die until the soldiers refused to shoot the demonstrators. The successor regime didn’t die until Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in August 1991. While there’s some mystery as to the fate of Tank Man, I don’t doubt that the CCP found Tank Commander and put a bullet in the back of his head at the first opportunity.

1989 is the end of the Short Century, in large part because of the collapse of the Eastern European empire of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Although the People’s Republic of China survived, I think that the moment that Tank Man and Tank Commander shared symbolizes the end of the era; the image and video of the moment, spread across the world by 24 hour news networks, signified a shift in the way that the state could interact with its citizens. It made the relationship between state and citizen explicit, and also exposed the weakness at the core of the state. States can still engage in brutal behavior, and horrible things can still happen, but the relationship has changed; the reliability of the bureaucracy of murder is in greater question now than it has been since the creation of the modern state system.

1989 is not 2009. The media trends that allowed the dissemination of the moment between Tank Man and Tank Commander have, if anything, accelerated; the ability of individuals to create their own narratives, independent of the state, is remarkable. At the same time, the state has developed new strategies for dealing with its citizens. This is as true of liberal democratic states as it is of authoritarian. I think, however, that the center of gravity of the state remains with Tank Commander. To the extent that the United States, other Western regimes, non-governmental organizations, and pretty much anyone else want to affect the course of events in Iran, the key is to convince Tank Commander not to shoot. The Iranian state has not deployed its full coercive resources against the demonstrators, and there’s no indication that it really wants to; even the CCP is said to believe that the massacre in Tiananmen Square was a serious mistake. The news to watch for is something like this, in which several members of the Revolutionary Guard were purportedly arrested for collaborating with dissident elements. Without the obedience of the security forces, the state collapses.

Sunday Book Review: Strait Talk

[ 0 ] June 14, 2009 |

Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk, published earlier this year, is a detailed examination of the triangular relationship between Washington, Taipei, and Beijing between the 1970s and today. Tucker focuses on the role that Taiwan played in the negotiations that normalized relations between the United States in China, both as object (how the US and CCP participants discussed what to do with China), and as participant (how Taipei and its allies tried to influence negotiations). The result is a remarkably detailed and interesting account of one of the key diplomatic relationships in the world today.

Broadly, Tucker’s argument is that the United States has repeatedly given away too much in negotiations with Beijing, especially with regards to Taiwan policy. During the Cold War and in the immediate post-Cold War period (although perhaps not today), the United States could offer China far more than China could offer the United States. Tucker suggests that a better appreciation of this fact could have made it possible for Nixon, Kissinger, and their successors to take a harder line on Taiwanese autonomy and on the nature of the US relationship with Taiwan. Tucker discusses repeated incidences of US preference for Beijing across several Presidential administrations, including both Democratic and Republican.

Tucker’s argument is most sound when we don’t consider the problem of imperfect information. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it does appear that Beijing had much to gain from cooperation with the US, and that it might have been willing to display greater flexibility over Taiwan’s eventual status. Indeed, from some theoretical perspectives it should have been apparent at the time that the US could push Beijing around a bit, given the former’s strength and the latter’s weakness in 1972. Much depends on whether you believe client states bring patrons to heel, or the other way around. I don’t think, however, that Tucker sufficiently conveys the opaqueness of Chinese decision-making to US policymakers, especially in the early 1970s. Nixon and Kissinger rightly believed that a shift in Chinese alignment could bring substantial gains to the United States, both strategically and (eventually) economically. They could have played negotiations with an eye to relative gains with Beijing, which is to say that they could have accepted the argument that Beijing needed Washington more than vice-versa, and structured the resulting settlement accordingly. One reason they didn’t is that they were happy to accept relative loss vis-a-vis China in order to pursue absolute gains against the Soviet Union; Tucker covers this quite well. The other reason is that US policymakers didn’t have a good sense of the Chinese decision calculus, and therefore of how far the Chinese could be pushed before breaking. The rationality (in the traditional realist sense) of Chinese foreign policy behavior post-1949 was not evident to Americans of 1972, even if such behavior is more understandable through historical lens. I don’t think that Kissinger or Nixon knew precisely what Mao wanted, or what would happen if they pushed Mao too much on Taiwan and other areas of dispute. As such, accepting losses on certain negotiating positions was a way in which US diplomats and policymakers managed uncertainty about the Chinese decision-making process.

I think that later Presidents can be more justly accused of failing to negotiate assertively enough with Beijing than Nixon and Kissinger, but we should remember that Chinese decision-making and governance structures remained volatile until at least the early 1990s. Looking back its easy to see continuity, but there were always reasons for the US to be concerned about China’s leadership politics. In contrast, United States policymakers understood fully that Taipei had no options; despite a very brief flirtation with the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, Taiwan depended for survival on the generosity of Washington.

This didn’t mean, however, that Taiwan lacked advocates in the United States. Tucker’s other major contribution is a detailed discussion of the decline and fall of the China Lobby. As most know, the China Lobby wielded substantial influence in the United States for several decades. It represented an alliance of American evangelical and missionary groups, American businessmen interested in the China market, and a certain segment of the Chinese Nationalist political elite (although not, apparently, much of the Chinese-American community) . The Lobby helped structure the terms of US relations with China prior to World War II, steering the US towards Nationalist China and against Communist China and Japan. This is not to say that the Lobby was fully determinative of US policy; the US government had good reasons to oppose Japan and the CCP in any case. The Lobby helped, however, to turn a realpolitik decision into a moral crusade. The influence of the Lobby couldn’t save Nationalist China on the mainland, but nevertheless remained potent after 1949.

The language that the China Lobby used to preclude US rapproachment with China will be familiar to contemporary readers; China was a rogue state that could use its nuclear weapons randomly at any given time, and as such wasn’t fit for diplomacy. At one point, Chiang Kai Shek claimed knowledge of the location of the most important Chinese nuclear facilities, and suggested that he could take them out, if only the US would loosen the leash a bit. The PRC, it seemed, was full of atheist maniacs who didn’t believe that 72 virgins would be waiting for them when they died, and consequently could do ANYTHING. Lousy atheists. Anyway, strategic considerations (and sanity) precluded any meaningful unleashing of Chiang, but the influence of the Lobby in the executive branch and in Congress helped prevent a Sino-American dialogue over Vietnam, the final status of Korea, the role of the PRC at the UN, and the potential for collaboration with the Soviet Union. When any President hinted at acknowledging the PRC, the Lobby could arm Congressional opponents with money and righteous rhetoric about the dangers of appeasing Beijing. Nixon was able to break the cycle, in part because the most vocal China advocates came from within his own party, but also because of the shifting strategic situation of the early 1970s. Concern about increasing Soviet power and the need for a way out of Vietnam eventually overwhelmed the story that the Lobby was trying to sell. Even so, when news of Nixon’s China trip became public, Ronald Reagan (a member in good standing of the China Lobby) was dispatched to Taipei to allay Nationalist concerns. This was Reagan’s first major foray into foreign affairs, and it ended in embarrassment; Nixon essentially deceived Reagan as to the extent of concessions promised to the PRC, and Reagan himself later backtracked from generous campaign rhetoric with regard to Taipei. The influence of the Lobby waned in the 1980s, in part because the old guard died off, in part because the ideological force of the rhetoric progressively rang more hollow, but mostly because the US-PRC relationship was wildly successful. Beijing, and American business interests that favored engagement with Beijing, eventually were able to counteract and neutralize pro-Nationalist forces in the United States.

Understated in the discussion of Nixon’s opening with China is that one of Nixon’s key goals was to secure economic relations between the US and the PRC. Nixon believed that US-China trade could alleviate the economic difficulties that the United States faced in the early 1970s. On this point, while Nixon was probably too optimistic about the immediate effects (US trade with the PRC did not surpass US trade with Taiwan for a very long time), he pretty much nailed the long-term impact. The US trade relationship with China has become one of the cornerstones of US economic growth, and indeed of the entire world economy. It’s difficult to imagine what the world would look like without this relationship; had China remained isolated (not difficult to imagine in 1972), worldwide economic growth rates would undoubtedly have suffered. Tucker doesn’t delve deeply into this aspect of US relations with the PRC, but it’s nevertheless critical to an evaluation of the performance of US diplomacy in the 1970s and 1980s.

In spite of a few quibbles, I found Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk enormously valuable. It’s very detailed, well sourced, and compellingly constructed. I highly recommend it to China specialists, and to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of strategic policymaking.

North Korea Nuclear News

[ 0 ] June 13, 2009 |

Fox News is reporting this morning that North Korea has declared the existence of its uranium program, and is threatening the weaponize its remaining plutonium. The New York Times confirms the latter, but not the former, and I can’t seem to find the text of the North Korean declaration (although CNN confirms the Fox account). The suspected existence of the uranium program helped derail the Agreed Framework that held between 1994 and 2002 (US intransigence also helped), which eventually led to the restart of the plutonium program at Yongbyon. The North Korean declaration is in response to the tighter sanctions regime established by yesterday’s UN resolution. It also looks as if North Korea may be preparing a third nuclear test; the general consensus is now that the device in the first test failed completely and the device in the second failed partially. North Korea is suspected to have enough plutonium for about half a dozen bombs (with perhaps one or two more if the rest of the plutonium at Yongbyon is weaponized), but I haven’t seen a good estimate of how much uranium it could have enriched.

Galrahn has a brief discussion of what the UN resolution means; China and Russia have committed, in word if not yet in action, to a regime which allows the interception and inspection of North Korean ships carrying prohibited weapons. As the resolution bars North Korea from exporting any arms at all (and from importing most arms), this is fairly wide-ranging authority. Even if China and Russia aren’t fully on board with implementation, the resolution makes any effort to export very risky for the North Koreans.

All of this seems to me to be the right way to go. It’s fair enough to suggest that we should tread lightly where North Korea is concerned, but that doesn’t obviate the international community of the responsibility to establish boundaries of appropriate conduct. North Korean breaches of these lines have made China, Russia, and South Korea willing to engage in more assertive diplomatic action than they had previously been prepared for. If additional tests are simply a negotiating tactic on the part of the North Koreans, then additional UN sanctions are the diplomatic counter-tactic of the US, Russia, China, and South Korea. I’m not too worried about additional North Korean nuclear tests (each test expends plutonium while unifying the international community), but the concern is that the next negotiating tactic the North Koreans will employ will involve military skirmishes along the DMZ, or near offshore islands.

Giant Chinese Submarine Space Carriers Threaten American Way of Life

[ 0 ] June 10, 2009 |

It helps if you read these two posts with the soundtrack from “You Only Live Twice” playing in the background. Via Axe.

Chinese SSBNs

[ 0 ] May 31, 2009 |

Check out this fabulously informative article on Chinese SSBNs. The PLAN is building between four and six Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile subs, which when complete will constitute a deterrent on the same order as that possessed by France or the United Kingdom. According to the author, the Chinese believe that SSBN launched missiles can render a missile defense system useless, at least for the current generation of missile defense technology.

I am curious about what the boats mean for the future of Chinese naval doctrine. Whereas British, French, and US SSBN practice has focused on hiding, Soviet naval doctrine envisioned a layered defense of SSBN home areas. The Soviets believed (correctly) that Western attack submarines could detect their SSBNs, and as such structured air, surface, and subsurface doctrine around the idea of protecting base areas from incursion by US subs and surface vessels. It seems unlikely to me that these Chinese submarines will be able to reliably avoid interception and tracking by US submarines, which makes me wonder whether the PLAN will adopt measures similar to those of the Red Navy in the second half of the Cold War. This is relevant because the Soviet naval buildup was misinterpreted until the late 1970s; it took a long time for the USN to figure out that the expansion of Soviet naval capabilities was, in substantial part, oriented around defense of boomers.

North Korea, You Got the Weight on Your Shoulders that’s Breaking Your Back

[ 0 ] May 27, 2009 |

I have a piece up at Comment is Free on the prospects for cooperation between China and the US on managing North Korea. The title, sadly, was not of my invention.

Some Big News on Chinese Aircraft Carriers

[ 0 ] May 23, 2009 |

Feng at ID highlights two new bits of data on China’s aircraft carrier program. The first is that the Chinese have carried out significant work on the ex-Varyag, the Kuznetsov class carrier that they purchased several years ago and that has been the source of constant speculation on Chinese intentions. The second, and much more interesting, is that the PLAN has apparently arranged to begin training its carrier pilots on board the Sao Paulo, Brazil’s full deck aircraft carrier.

Aircraft carriers represent a huge investment of time and effort. Apart from the carrier itself and the aircraft, a navy needs to assemble a battlegroup capable of protecting the carrier, and needs to master fixed wing big deck carrier operations. This last is exceptionally complicated, and its difficulty is not to be underestimated. Operating a modern aircraft carrier requires a high level of professionalism and expertise on the part of the pilots, the aircrew, and the ship’s regular complement. For example, taking off from and landing on a carrier is much more complicated than similar operations on land. Pilots also have to master a set of navigational skills that will guarantee they can find their carrier under adverse conditions. The maintenance requirements for aircraft at sea are much greater than for aircraft on land, because of the corrosive effect of seawater. Coordinating an air group at sea is difficult, and coordinating take offs and landings such that sorties can be maximized is very difficult indeed. We know all this because it took the United States quite some time to master jet aircraft operations on big deck carriers. Until the Chinese master such operations, they’re looking forward to large numbers of accidents and carriers of limited effectiveness.

Learning such operations takes a long time. One shortcut to learning from scratch is to borrow knowledge from others. The Royal Navy, which has substantially lost the expertise it once had in aircraft carrier operations, is borrowing from both the French and the Americans. US and French advisors are consulting with the RN, and RN officers are learning on board US and French ships. Chinese options for vicarious learning, however, are limited. The US certainly isn’t interested in doing the Chinese any favors. The French might be interested, but their military interaction with China is limited by EU arms export rules. The Russians don’t have a reputation for being very effective in carrier operations, and in any case they’re likely to lack a sense of humor about the Chinese stealing their aircraft.

Enter Brazil, last of the four countries to operate conventional aircraft from carriers. Sao Paulo, formerly the French Foch, operates A-4 Skyhawks. It appears from this interview that the PLAN has arranged with the Brazilian Navy to train some of its pilots and crews on board Sao Paulo. It’s fair to say that this represents a substantial step forward for Chinese naval aviation. This agreement with Brazil will presumably allow the Chinese access to Brazilian naval aviation experts in addition to the carrier itself. This should accelerate the development of Chinese naval aviation by quite a bit.

The normal caveats apply to this; in the very best case scenario China is decades away from being able to challenge the carriers of the USN with its own. Moreover, conflict between China and the United States, or China and its neighbors, is far from inevitable. Still, the PLAN appears to be serious about naval aviation, and it seems to know what it needs to learn. As a final point, unless this is all part of an elaborate charade on the part of the Chinese, it indicates that in spite of whatever methods the PLAN may have developed to attack US carriers, it still believes that it needs its own CVs.

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