Chinese aircraft carrier evolved at a faster pace than any other carriers built in the world.
Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.
Strategic discourses across the globe have focused on China on account of the unprecedented militarization that has happened in the South China Sea (SCS). China’s defiance of UNCLOS Arbitral Award to the Philippines, building artificial islands in SCS and launching a series of military exercises close to Taiwan and Japan have been the theme of hundreds of strategic debates.
The Chinese actions in Galwan in June this year and the subsequent engagements and disengagements between India and China are also the themes of such discourses in India specially. India’s action to hasten the arrival of five Rafale fighter from France, DRDO successfully testing improved Varunastra (torpedo), a ministerial announcement that billions of USD would now are slated for upgrading defense equipment and such like news have been heartily discussed by experts almost to the point of hailing India’s might and will to address Chinese ambitions on India’s borders. It is to be recognized that such enthusiastic reading of the situation is good for national morale.
Experts agree that between equipment and morale, the latter is more important. There are a million battles in which this has been proved right too. However, experts also concede that morale is not a substitute for equipment. A poorly equipped army, however well motivated it may be, stands the risk humiliation in battle. Again, Sino-Indian conflict of 1961 provides ample lessons in this.
Taking the cue from Sun Tzu quoted above, we shall first see how China balances this factor.
The Taiwan Crisis of 1996
In 1996, Taiwan announced its first-ever democratic elections for its President. The sitting president, Lee Teng-hui of the Kuomintang party was voted to office in those elections. When the announcement for elections was made in 1995, as expected China protested and even mobilized its Second Artillery Corps (now designated as PLA Rocket Forces) and re-deployed its F-7 (MiG 21 Fishbed variant) fleet some 250 miles from Taiwan. Reportedly, hundreds of Chinese civilian fishing boats entered Taiwanese waters too. Chinese continued missile ‘testing’ and firing live missiles as part of the exercise even after the March 1996 elections were over (Mizokami, 2019). With tensions rising, especially when two missiles fell within thirty five-mile radii of Taipei, beleaguered Taiwan turned to its staunchest ally, USA, fearing imminent invasion by PLA.
The US responded quickly. Japan-based carrier fleet led by USS Independence took position on the East of Taiwan. A bigger carrier group headed by USS Nimitz rushed from the Persian Gulf and took its position in the Philippine Sea (Global Security, 2011). With two US Carrier Groups now flanking Taiwan, China called off its military exercises. A credible threat of invasion was averted.
While there were sighs of relief in Taiwan, US and its allies, China learnt a crucial lesson – the importance of aircraft carriers!
The PLAN as on that day had no carrier task force and its shore-based missile corps or tin-pot naval ships were no match for the armada headed by Independence and Nimitz. It may not be out of place to say that historical memories of British-European battleships raining hellfire on Canton in 1839 may have flashed across the Chinese mind.
So What did the Chinese do?
In 1991 when USSR broke into 16 countries of Central Asia, Ukraine came in possession of Kuznetsov-class aircraft cruiser Riga which had been commissioned in 1988. Cash strapped Ukraine put the ship up for sale to Russia, India and China. In view of the diplomatic situation in the world in the aftermath of the collapse of USSR, China declined. India did not take interest and Russia was financially weak. So the fully constructed carrier, short of electronics and few other needs, was left to rust. In 1998 however, the rusting hulk was bought at auction for $20 million a Mr Chong Lot for his company based in Macau. Chong Lot proposed that the ship would be converted into a $200 million floating hotel and casino (ARKIB, 1998).
In a story that could become an international bestselling thriller, Riga commenced its journey in June 2000 and tugged around the Cape of Good Hope, reached Chinese waters in February 2002, a journey of 28200 km at a speed of 6 knots!! In 2012, after refits and modernization, now christened Liaoning, the Chinese aircraft carrier entered service with PLAN in September.
The entire exercise of obtaining its aircraft carrier was done out in the typical Chinese way – bluff, divert and deny. For example, when reports started appearing in the news, the Chinese Navy official who mastered minded the operation went ‘missing’. Later it was reported that he was imprisoned for smuggling. In 2012, when reports of the carrier refit appeared, Chinese admitted candidly to refitting the ship for ‘scientific and explorative purposes’. The consummate skill with Chinese media puts out or denies information and misinformation makes it hard to discern the truths surrounding anything. Of course, what stands out undeniably is that China has its own aircraft carrier the Liaoning. The second Liaoning class Chinese aircraft carrier, Shandong, was commissioned by the PLA Navy on December 17, 2019, in Sanya, south China’s Hainan Province. What is important to note is the speed with which Shandong came into service, unlike Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. Construction started in November 2013 and in December 2019, she was commissioned into PLAN (China Power Team, 2020).
What do We Learn?
Baku was built in 1987 and remained in the Russian navy as a Gorshkov Class carrier till 1996. It was de-activated due to financial crisis in Russia. India’s interest in the carrier began then. Eight years of negotiations later, India and Russia signed a deal for its purchase. It took nine more years before she entered service, now rechristened as INS Vikramaditya. Any diversion into the politico-bureaucratic delays and scandals that have racked defence procurement in India will take us away from what Sun Tzu taught us to do: “If you know the enemy and know yourself…”. So let us just look at the lessons that come out of the thriller-like Chinese story that we may title in James Bond-style – From Macau, with Love!
With two US carrier groups standing at its doorstep, especially of the Nimitz class, use of the entire Second Artillery Corps and fleet of J-7s would have only repeated what happened at Canton. President Xi Jinping specifically called it the Century of Humiliation. Adventurism tempered with wisdom. So, lesson number one is: Learn from your history.
It took Chinese ten years to refit and induct Riga as their own Liaoning. The point to note is it the rusting old float that was towed 28000 km came became China’s credible aircraft carrier through their own technical, homegrown expertise at the port of Dalian (Vavasseur, 2019). Lesson number two: Grow your technical expertise to cater to FUTURE needs.
Liaoning even went through a refit after six years of service bringing new lessons. The third Chinese aircraft carrier is being developed now reportedly will come with CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) design equipped with electromagnetic catapults). Lesson number three: Learn again from your weapon system and involve R&D in improvising them.
Interestingly, India’s story of procuring INS Vikramaditya runs on a similar dateline to Liaoning. Rest is open to deductions.
The second carrier, Shandong, was launched in less than six years from the scratch. An ability to assimilate and focus research to produce what the country needs. Lesson number four: Remain focused and constantly upgrade skills.
The political scenario in China through the late 1990s to 2012 went through as many incidents and events as could draw parallel from India. Just to mention few events: in 1996, China launches Shanghai Five that became SCO later; in 1997, death of Deng Xiaoping witnesses riots, bombings and killings; in 1998, Zhu Rongji launches reforms, creating economic turmoil in and outside Party lines; in 1999, NATO bombs Chinese Embassy in Belgrade; in 2000, the purging of corrupt officials starts; in 2003+ SARS hits China and the Hong Kong rebellion breaks out; in 2005, China adopts new law that calls for Taiwan calls for use of force should Taipei declare independence from mainland China; 2005-06 witnessed rising tensions with Japan; in 2007-08, new Bishop chosen by China is approved by the Pope in Rome and the worst ever snowstorms kill over 100 million people; 2008-09 mark the global financial crisis impacting China too; 2010-12, notwithstanding allegation of Chinese cyber hacks and resultant with the US, it emerges as the world’s no.2 economy; in 2012. The Bo Xilai scandal rocks China… (BBC, 2019)
Lesson number five, and most important of all: Internal or even externally assisted turmoil to come and pass over. As they say-Even This Shall Pass. The country’s political, a bureaucratic mechanism must be proofed against such vagaries of the times.
The lessons that we have attempted to draw from Chinese aircraft carrier acquisition may appear too big for the type of events we have taken to introspect into. We do feel that way when we write about this. But then, we are chastened by our own Tiruvalluvar who says:
எற்றுஎன்று இரங்குவ செய்யற்க செய்வானேல்
மற்றுஅன்ன செய்யாமை நன்று
“A person shall not undertake in the first place, any act which might force him to regret later. If, by chance, he had done, such an act by mistake due to ignorance or unavoidable circumstances, let him not repeat it”
Manu, the giver of law that even today forms the basis of Indian Civil law, also said the same:
“He who, having either unintentionally or intentionally committed a regrettable deed, desires to be freed from the guilt on it, must not commit it a second time” (Sanskrit Roots, n.d).
We generally take these philosophers as having dealt with man’s quest of realization with. However, these lessons apply equally in all the spheres of life of a society too.
Even Sun Tzu never wrote his treatise keeping only Generals and Commanders in mind!!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies
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BBC. (2019, July 29). BBC. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from China profile – Timeline: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13017882
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Sanskrit Roots. (n.d). Sanskrit Roots. Retrieved October 18, 2020, from National Integration Through Thirukkural And Sanskrit: https://sanskritroots.com/thirukkural-couplets/601-700/651-660/655-introspection/
Vavasseur, X. (2019, January 24). Naval News. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from Liaoning Aircraft Carrier, Returns To Sea After Refit: https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2019/01/liaoning-aircraft-carrier-returns-to-sea-after-refit/