China extending military reach

China's aircraft carrier is seen under construction in Dalian, Liaoning province (April 2011) (above) and on Google Maps (below) China admitted its first aircraft carrier was under construction earlier this year

A maritime arms race is under way in the South China Sea. Beijing is rapidly developing a host of military capabilities that will enable it to project power well beyond its own shores.

It is already the dominant regional naval power and many of its new systems could one day threaten US naval dominance as well.

No wonder then that so many of its neighbours are worried; particularly those like Vietnam and the Philippines who are engaged in long-running maritime disputes with Beijing.

According to Dr Andrew Erickson, a China expert at the US Naval War College: "China does not want to start a war, but rather seeks to wield its growing military might to 'win without fighting' by deterring actions that it views as detrimental to its core national interests."

Three weapons systems are emblematic of China's broadening strategic horizons.

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China's first aircraft carrier will begin sea trials later this year. Late last year, the first pictures were leaked of the prototype of Beijing's new "stealth" fighter. And US military experts believe that China has begun to deploy the world's first long-range ballistic missile capable of hitting a moving ship at sea.

Dr Erickson says China's capabilities thus far have been focused on developing a regional anti-access or area denial strategy to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence.

In part this strategy rests upon developing credible weapons systems to hold US carrier battle groups at risk should Washington elect to intervene.

Graphic
The 'carrier killer'

China deploys a formidable array of missiles and other weapons that range far out from its own shores.

Of these, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is unique; a land-based system that could potentially target US carrier battle groups that have long been the corner-stone of Washington's maritime might.

Chinese military vehicle carrying a DF21 medium range ballistic missile is on its way to a military parade rehearsal for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic held in Beijing, China, September 6, 2009 The DF-21 could be used to hit targets hundreds of miles away

The DF-21D (known in the West as the CSS-5) is fired from a wheeled transporter vehicle and has a range in excess of 1,500km. It is armed with a manoeuvrable warhead that gives the Chinese military the ability to strike ships in the western Pacific Ocean.

American officials and the director-general of Taiwan's National Security Bureau say that China has already begun to deploy the DF-21D.

It is easy to see why China would want such a missile. It is all about limiting the pre-eminent naval power in the region, the US, from intervening in any future crisis involving Taiwan.

Home of the Flying Shark

Ever since the Pacific campaign of World War II, aircraft carriers have been the dominant means of projecting naval power.

American carrier battle groups incorporate large flight-decks with a diverse array of aircraft for a variety of missions. Each carrier is accompanied and protected by several other warships and submarines.

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The unveiling of the Chengdu J-20 is believed to bring China into the restricted ranks of those countries able to build a "stealth" fighter”

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China too is now entering the carrier race, albeit from a standing start. An old Soviet-era carrier - the Varyag - was purchased from Ukraine and has been extensively refitted.

China's first carrier will operate the new J-15 Flying Shark strike fighter, based on another Russian design, the Sukhoi SU-33 jet.

According to the respected industry journal Aviation Week & Space Technology, China may well have acquired an SU-33 prototype from Ukraine as well.

The carrier is reported to be due to begin sea trials in the summer. Once operational it would give the Chinese Navy a significant new capability in its continuing disputes with its maritime neighbours.

But Western experts note that this carrier will largely serve a training role. Carrier operations require significant expertise which can only be built up over time. The vessel is unlikely to deploy the wide range of aircraft available to the commander of a US Naval carrier air group.

Nonetheless, Dr Erickson says China will use the carrier to "project a bit of power, confer prestige on a rising great power, and master basic procedures".

Great ambitions

China's land-based aviation is also advancing steadily. Traditionally it has mostly fielded large numbers of locally-produced copies of Soviet-era jets.

An undated picture circulating on the internet and obtained by Kyodo news agency on 12 January 2011, shows what is reported to be a Chinese J-20 stealth fighter in flight in Chengdu, Sichuan province China's J-20 prototype had its maiden flight in Chengdu earlier this month

However the unveiling of the Chengdu J-20 is believed to bring China into the restricted ranks of those countries able to build a fifth-generation radar-evading or "stealth" fighter.

Its maiden flight, last January, came only hours before a visit by the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Beijing, a coincidence which many analysts saw as a deliberate signal by China.

Douglas Barrie, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, says China's J-20 cannot match the US equivalents.

But he added: "The aircraft does mark China's ambitions in terms of developing its air combat capability, and of its defence aerospace industrial base."

Questions though still surround the project.

"Whether the J-20 is an actual fighter prototype or a technology demonstrator, remains to become clear, and this will in part determine how quickly China introduces such a capability into service," Mr Barrie said.

"An introduction into service, perhaps around the turn of the decade, would seem reasonable."

That said, what would be the strategic significance of the J-20, given that by then the US will field hundreds of fifth generation fighters?

Mr Barrie argues that the introduction of significant numbers of J-20-based fighters would "pose an increased challenge to other regional powers, and to US forces in Asia Pacific".

But across the board experts are cautious about all of China's apparent great leaps forward in terms of military hardware.

US commanders are watching developments closely. China is putting down markers for the future. But in the near-term it still must look on jealously at America's maritime power.

Size comparison of world aircraft carriers. List of aircraft carriers by country: US 11, Itay 2, France 1, India 1, Spain 1,  UK 1, Russia 1, Brazil 1, Thailand 1

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