China's naval rise is not as threatening as US would like

Despite all of the evidence, anything involving China these days elicits an unreasonable response in Washington. This is especially true when it comes to Chinese military might.

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'China's Growing Military Muscle: A Looming Threat." Was this a placard held by Japanese nationalists? The title of a right-wing American think tank report? The work of Taiwanese independence advocates, perhaps?

Wrong on all counts. This headline appeared on the normally sober, generally pacifist website of America's National Public Radio, prompted by the unsurprising news that China is near completion of its first aircraft carrier.

China confirmed earlier this month what has been blatantly obvious for at least a decade now: Beijing plans to re-launch a Soviet-era relic, the never-completed medium-carrier Varyag, as the very first aircraft carrier in the Chinese fleet.

In the era of Google Earth, the launching of a Chinese aircraft carrier was going to be a hard secret to keep. Yet it has nonetheless been the occasion for the latest round of hand-wringing in the United States, where fears of "declinism", soaring national debt and the onset of strategic paranoia is casting a shadow on almost any economic or military development outside its borders.

This may be predictable, but the impending launch of a Chinese aircraft carrier should hardly cause palpitations in Washington. The Admiral Kuznetsov class vessel, even after the extensive refit China has mounted, falls far short of anything operated by the US Navy. The US currently operates 11 super carriers, most of the Nimitz class, not to mention a decent collection of slightly older Forrestal and Kitty Hawk vessels, which have been retired but all of which put the Soviet ships to shame.

More to the point, China's carrier — whatever its capabilities — hardly fits China's military strategy, which focuses on area denial (increasingly on display amid a rise in tension in the South China Sea, for instance). China has made great strides in deploying sophisticated anti-ship missiles that could conceivably threaten an American carrier. As the US Naval Institute has been reporting for years, American Seventh Fleet commanders worry far more about Chinese missile developments than any challenge from China's fleet.

Anyone imagining that China's naval military academies are war-gaming Midway-like scenarios is completely paranoid. Indeed, the city of Newport, Rhode Island, home to the decommissioned 1950s-era giants USS Forrestal and USS Saratoga, has more potential naval air power lying around dormant than China, Russia and India have combined. In fact, most of the ships currently classified as carriers by Jane's Defence can only operate helicopters and short take-off and landing aircraft, a serious disadvantage in terms of performance and flexibility.

Age is another issue. India's carrier, INS Viraat, for instance, was built for the Royal Navy in 1959. It served as HMS Hermes, notably the flagship of the Royal Navy's Falklands campaign in 1982, before being sold to India in 1985. Brazil's carrier, Sao Paulo, is only a bit less decrepit, having been launched as the French Navy's Foch in 1963, and sold to Brazil in the early 1990s.

Despite all of this evidence, anything involving China these days elicits an unreasonable response in Washington. US war colleges turn out paper after paper on the threats posed by China's "blue water" naval ambitions, and some defence analysts believe the US has happily capitalised on China's recent bullying of its smaller neighbours in the South China Sea by strengthening defence ties to Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. (Talks between the US and China planned for yesterday were called in part to defuse tensions over these hot spots).

Indeed, the appearance of a Chinese carrier isn't all bad from a US admiral's standpoint. Many see this as an opportunity to shore up procurement budgets. Already the US Navy has been on the offensive, touting its far-flung ring of Pacific Rim bases as the ultimate guarantee of stability in the region - warning Congress against the budget-cutting instincts of outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

Northrop Grumman and a legion of defence subcontractors will welcome the Chinese flat top. The company's Newport News shipyard is busy building the first of the newest class of super carriers, the US$5.1 billion (Dh18.7bn) USS Gerald R Ford, in Virginia. As a class, it's more of an incremental modernisation of the Nimitz class than a leap forward — much the same compliment of aircraft, a slightly reconfigured deck, new catapult systems and improvements in various defensive weapons. Compared to a 30 year old Soviet hulk, though, it's quite an awesome weapon.

Whether there will be many more Ford class ships is a debate that needs to be had. Advances in pilotless aircraft raise real questions about the wisdom of putting 90 combat aircraft on a ship. Advances in anti-shipping missiles raise survivability questions for the great carriers, as do the new generation of torpedoes.

These all are valuable debates. So, too, are questions about the extent to which post-war restrictions on Japan's navy should stay in place. For that matter, if American politicians are determined to fret about the Chinese, why not worry about Beijing's true weapon - the sovereign wealth funds that hold potentially destabilising percentages of US national debt? One has to wonder whether China would prefer Washington to keep overspending on defence.

Bottom line: don't get worked up about the alleged "blue water navy" China is building. Partisans of one kind or another may deploy Red Scare tactics about the carrier, but there are an awful lot of better things for Americans - and their allies - to worry about.

Michael Moran is a geostrategy analyst for Roubini Global Economics based in New York. His book, Managing Down: The Global Risks and Human Costs of American Decline, will be published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2012.