There is nothing like a ship that is supposed to be a casino quietly floating pier side in Macau fleecing people of their money setting sail on sea trials to cause me to revisit a very important flash point. I am speaking about the South China Sea and all the countries that border it of course.
Back in 1998, the uncompleted second aircraft carrier of the Soviet Northern Fleet was sold by the Ukraine to a Chinese businessman for $20 million. The stated purpose of buying the carrier was to create a casino in Macau. Even back then many asked pointed questions on why a businessman from the Peoples Republic of China would buy such an item. This week removed any lingering doubt that might have persisted since 2002 when the ex-Kutzenov bypassed Macau and entered a shipyard.
This aircraft carrier has far reaching impact for the South China Sea area. If you read the article linked in the prior paragraph you have people trying to downplay the significance of this lone aircraft carrier because the United States has 11 carriers in commission. They ignore the fact that during the presidency of Ronald Reagan the US Navy had 13 carriers plus USS Lexington for naval aviator training. Also ignored is the long periods when a nuclear carrier is berthed after a deployment or even worse the years a carrier is in port during a Service Life Extension Program[SLEP] like USS Enterprise just emerged from. So not all eleven carriers are available all the time. And with US Navy commitments to the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic, and Mediterranean; what carriers that are in commission are spread thin. Which means in the future if the PRC decides to flex it's naval muscle to close off the South China Sea to secure the Spratly Islands, the US might not have a carrier to spare to counter-balance the Chinese one. So one carrier, if properly deployed, can have an impact far in excess of it being only one such ship.
Which is probably why various nations around the South China Sea are trying to get new weapon systems bought. Vietnam, even with a horrible economy, is buying SU-30M aircraft from Russia for $1billion US and will spend another $2billion US to purchase Kilo class diesel-electric subs. The Philippines are still shopping for new hardware with no budget.
Taiwan wants to purchase diesel-electric submarines also, but it seems the Bush era deal has fallen through. Meanwhile the Obama administration is not endearing itself with the Republic of China because Vice President Joe Biden is going to Beijing to assure the PRC that all the US will do is upgrade the RoC F-16A/B Fighting Falcons that are now twenty years old. That also the desire by the RoC for 66 new build F-16C/Ds will not be filled. Naturally the Obama administration has said the RoC has not lobbied hard for the fighters. And some on Taiwan also blame the government. Sitting at this keyboard, it seems to be a joint effort by both governments.
During the era of the dreadnought, the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan held sway. Namely naval ships could not influence land events. The birth of the aircraft carrier changed that. When Marc Mitchner and his fast carriers boldly sailed off Japan's shores and attacked anything they found to when F-14 Tomcats launched out of the Indian Ocean struck targets in Afghanistan, Mahan's theory has been disproved. And it seems with one carrier, the PRC can effect the same impact over the South China Sea.
How to counter this one carrier if the United States can't spare one? Diesel-electric submarines are very quiet and good at slipping through a task force screen. Aircraft are a natural predator to aircraft carriers, look what Spruance and Fletcher did at Midway. Then there is the cruise missile option.
What it will really take is bold leadership in Washington, Manila, Taipei, Seoul, and Hanoi to prevent the Chinese dragon from burning out the whole region. Military drawdowns are not the answer when a nation with expansionist dreams adds new weapons and tactics to its arsenal.