Leaked Report Reveals China Is Building New Aircraft Carrier

The Buzz

China has all but confirmed that it is building an indigenous aircraft carrier, and that it may even be a nuclear-powered one.

On Thursday,, the Chinese-language version of the state-run Global Times, published an internal document of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, one of China’s two largest shipbuilding companies. CSIC is a state-owned company.

The report lists building nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier as the company’s “priority missions.” It also states that progress on these projects has been smooth.

"The priority missions of building the aircraft carrier and nuclear-submarines have been carried out smoothly and with outstanding achievements," the document states, according to a translation provided by Taiwanese media outlets. The same Taiwanese reports go on to say that the document suggests that China’s first homegrown aircraft carrier is likely to be nuclear-powered, without elaborating.

Adding credence to this viewpoint is that this week also featured promiently a new Russian report that claims that China’s first homegrown aircraft carriers will be nuclear powered. Specifically, earlier this week Sputnik News reported, citing an assessment by Vasily Kashin, an expert from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, that “it is known that China plans to build large nuclear aircraft carriers, equipped with electromagnetic catapults. Work on the main units and elements of the ship is already underway, and the project documentation part of it has been completed.”

China has long been suspected of building indigenous aircraft carriers. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of Chinese military power states: “China also continues to pursue an indigenous aircraft carrier program and could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years.”

The Pentagon report goes on to note that compared to the Liaoning, the refurbished Soviet-carrier the People’s Liberation Army Navy currently operates, China’s homegrown carriers “would be capable of improved endurance and of carrying and launching more varied types of aircraft, including electronic warfare, early warning, and anti-submarine, thus increasing the potential striking power of a PLA Navy ‘carrier battle group’ in safeguarding China’s interests in areas outside its immediate periphery.”

China has done nothing to dissuade foreign observers of the view that it is building indigenous aircraft carriers. To the contrary, one Chinese defense spokesperson told reporters that while the Liaoning is China’s first aircraft carrier, it will not be the only one.

Similarly, in January 2014 media reports in China quoted Liaoning party chief Wang Min as saying that work on China’s second aircraft carrier had begun in the city of Dalian, and that Beijing ultimately expected to build four aircraft carriers. These reports, however, were quickly removed by China’s censors.

Assuming it remains online, the Global Times’ publication of the internal CSIC document is therefore the closest China has come to confirming that is currently building a homegrown aircraft carrier.

Notably, the new report comes on the heels of Russian reports that China is exploring different options for forming carrier battle groups. Those reports were reprinted by Chinese state media outlets.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

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Alliance Flux in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

Some recent policy decisions by Middle Eastern governments have the potential to shake up regional alignments, or what are widely perceived to be alignments. In the near term this will have little to do with the Iran nuclear agreement, despite the attention the agreement is getting at the moment. That accord will not lead to realignments as great as its opponents fear, and its larger impact on regional diplomacy will be gradual and only slightly apparent in the near term.

The agreement by the Turkish government to cooperate more actively than previously with the United States in combating the so-called Islamic State or ISIS in northern Syria represents a more immediate shaking up. The recent suicide bombing by an ISIS member that killed 32 victims in a Turkish town is one of the immediate precipitants of the Turkish decision, but the thinking behind the decision is more complicated than that. President Erdogan seems at least as interested in ensuring that Kurdish rebels do not establish themselves in the patch of land that is the focus of the U.S.-Turkish agreement as that ISIS not establish itself there. These priorities are demonstrated by Turkish military operations since the agreement was announced, which have included strikes against Kurdish targets as well as ISIS ones. To the extent that the newest twist in Turkish policy involves a partial lessening of what has been another Turkish priority, which is the toppling of Bashar Assad, the twist represents a reversal of sorts. But Erdogan's determination in recent times to shove out Assad is itself a reversal of what had been years of cordial relations between Turkey and the Assad regime.

Domestic politics have much to do with the Turkish gyrations. The failure of Erdogan's AK party to win a parliamentary majority in recent elections—due mainly to the success of a liberal Kurdish-dominated party—is directly related to the latest twist in Turkish policy toward the Kurds. AK is looking for support in forming a governing coalition from a nationalist party opposed to political openings to the Kurds. Thus Erdogan has effectively closed his own earlier opening—another reversal of a reversal.

Domestic political change is also involved in recent policy revisions by another major regional state—Saudi Arabia—that are likely to have even greater consequences for regional alignments. The assumption of the Saudi throne by King Salman and the accretion of power by his young son have been associated especially with a more aggressive stance in the neighborhood, especially prosecution of the war in Yemen. But another significant change since the transition from Abdullah to Salman has been a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, after years of strong Saudi opposition to the Brotherhood. The Saudis recently received a visit from Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, although they sought to downplay the significance of it. The improvement of relations with Hamas was made possible partly by the estrangement between Hamas and the Assad regime in Syria. The conventional wisdom about the Saudi overture to Hamas is that this is part of an effort to displace Iranian influence and to bolster Sunni unity with regard to conflicts such as the one in Yemen.

The conventional wisdom may be largely correct with regard to Saudi objectives, but the further consequences may not be what the Saudis intend. A softened posture toward the Brotherhood and a partnership with Hamas puts the Saudis on a possible collision course with both the Egypt of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel, for whom bashing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas have been dominant features of their respective policies. Confrontations are likely to arise that will expose the fragility and artificiality of what is commonly described as an “alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the supposed convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel with respect to Iran. Saudi Arabia and al-Sisi's Egypt have almost nothing in common beyond being Sunni and Arab, and Saudi Arabia and Israel have nothing in common besides being states defined largely in terms of a specific (but different in each case) religion. The next major armed conflict in the Gaza Strip—and barring a major change in Israeli policy, this is a matter of when rather than if—would be the sort of confrontation that would lay these realities bare.

Looking beyond the immediate ripple effects of current diplomatic doings and thinking about farther-reaching ripples, it is not at all crazy to suggest, as Leon Hadar has, that Israel's best long-term interests lie in the direction of developing (or rather, recalling the days of the shah, redeveloping) a partnership with Iran. For the time being the invective and enmity that flow in both directions of that relationship make such a development seem out of reach, but the geopolitical considerations that argue for it are still there. The same can be said of Israel's relations with Turkey, the other major non-Arab power in the region.

The chief implication for U.S. policy is to be aware of how fragile and ephemeral putative alliances and alignments in this region can be, to realize that domestic political changes far short of revolution or regime change can have major effects on those alignments, and to be nimble and to avoid getting wedded to what is fragile and ephemeral.  

TopicsIsrael Turkey Iran Saudi Arabia RegionsMiddle East

This Is How Big China's Internet Is

The Buzz

The number of Internet users in China has grown to 668 million, according to a report released last week by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), a state agency that administers China’s domain name registry and conducts research on the Chinese Internet. Below are the main points from the agency’s annual Internet development report. Full text of the report can be found here.

- The total number of Internet users in China grew to 668 million, a 5.6 percent increase over last year. That’s an Internet penetration rate of 48.8 percent. In the United States, by comparison, 85 percent of people access the Internet, although the penetration rate seems to be hovering around that point.

- Mobile Internet users grew to 594 million, 88.9 percent of all Internet users. Compare that to the United States, where only about 67 percent of Internet users access the Internet through their mobile phone.

- The share of Internet users residing in rural areas grew slightly relative to urban Internet users. Rural residents now account for 27.9 percent of all of China’s Internet users.

- As in the rest of the world, young people account for a majority of Internet users. People between ten and thirty years of age make up 55.2 percent of the online population in China.

- Users of online payment platforms like Alipay, the Chinese equivalent of Paypal or Venmo, continued to grow. Among Chinese Internet users, 53.7 percent use an online payment platform, while 46.5 percent of mobile phone users use a mobile payment service.

- 374 million people engaged in online shopping in China last year, 12 percent more than last year.

- The percentage of Internet users speculating in stocks online dropped by 0.3 percent since the beginning of the year, perhaps in response to increased volatility in Chinese stock markets over the last two months.

- The number of users of Weibo, Chinese microblogging services that are similar to Twitter, declined by 35 percent year-on-year, providing confirmation for the argument that Weibo is dying as users migrate to WeChat, a mobile messaging service with a more discrete blogging feature.

- The average amount of time Chinese Internet users spend online each week decreased for the first time ever, dropping to 25.6 hours from a high of 26.1 hours the last time CNNIC surveyed users, in December 2014.

Chinese Internet regulators have gotten a lot of bad press in recent weeks, as it came out that new national security and cybersecurity laws included measures that would make it easier for the government to monitor citizen activity online. For example, the government appears to be doubling down on a requirement that Chinese citizens use their real name and state-issued ID number when opening online accounts and demanding that Chinese companies use technology that is domestically-sourced and “controllable.”

However, despite these limitations, the state of China’s Internet isn’t all bad, as Internet service provision continues to increase. Internet penetration in China has increased by about four percent annually since 2010. While this year’s increase of 2.8 percent represents a gradual leveling-off of growth rates, Internet usage in China remains significantly lower than in developed countries, so there’s still room for growth. Given a recent commitment by the central government to increase investment in infrastructure development, particularly in rural areas, we could even expect a higher year-on-year increase next year.

This piece first appeared on CFR’s blog Net Politics here

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Get Ready: Could China and Taiwan Be Headed towards a Crisis in 2016?

The Buzz

With the high likelihood that Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will regain the presidency in the January 2016 elections, many analysts have predicted a return of tensions in the Taiwan Strait after eight years of relative stability under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration of President Ma Ying-jeou.

Whether a DPP victory in those elections would indeed mark a return to hostilities will be largely contingent on how Beijing reacts to this likely development.

From the outset it's important that we clarify what the DPP under its Chairperson and presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is not. Unlike her predecessor Chen Shui-bian, who served two terms from 2000-2008, Tsai has taken a more subdued approach to cross-strait relations. She has chosen instead to focus on domestic matters and to consolidate the nation. When pressed to explain her cross-strait policies, Tsai has adopted a more centrist position than her predecessor by vowing to maintain the 'status quo' under the current constitutional framework of the Republic of China (ROC) and to seek continuity in the relationship with Beijing. 

In other words, despite the alarmism in some circles, Tsai will not suddenly declare de jure independence for Taiwan, an act that Beijing has made clear would provide 'justification' for the use of force.

Moreover, by avoiding the issue of the 'independence clause' in the party charter and instead using the Resolution on Taiwan's Future, which states that the ROC/Taiwan is already an independent state as her basis for Taiwan's relations with China, Tsai was signaling that she did not intend to make cross-strait relations a major factor in her campaign.

Tsai's China policy therefore looks rather similar to that of the KMT's Ma, who throughout his presidency made the 'status quo' a principal pillar of his own China policy. Tsai and Ma nevertheless differ in one key aspect, and that is the controversial '1992 consensus,' of which its 'one China' clause is unacceptable to her DPP constituents. Still, Tsai has promised the continuation of constructive relations with China – in other words, she is giving precedence to substance over technicalities such as the 'platform' on which cross-strait dialogue will occur.

Despite the criticism heard in the more conservative wing of her party, who accused her of engineering the 'KMT-ization' of the DPP, Tsai is currently at the apex of her power, with opinion polls showing a comfortable lead against the KMT candidate or any combination of opponents. 

If the KMT was to have any chance of defeating Tsai, it would have to field a formidable candidate, someone who has the ability to harness the forces of a society that is increasingly assured of, and vocal about, its Taiwanese identity, as the Sunflower Movement made perfectly clear in March and April 2014. 

Instead, the KMT picked (and on July 19 confirmed) Hung Hsiu-chu, the deputy legislative speaker whose China policy, as it is understood, seems to go against all the trend lines in society. Hung's views on China and Taiwan are such that a number of KMT legislators – from both the 'mainlander' and 'Taiwanese' factions – threatened to quit the party, while others openly criticized it and as a result were expelled.

Seeing a crisis in the making, party elders of the KMT did their best to convince Hung to tone down her rhetoric, an intervention which became necessary after she stated her espousal of a 'one China, same interpretation' (一中同表) policy that not only contradicted the official KMT position of 'one country, different interpretations' (一國兩憲), but seemed to echo Beijing's position on the matter. Her announcement that, if elected, she would sign a 'peace agreement' with China and possibly end arms procurement from the U.S. alarmed many people within the KMT, not to mention within the rest of Taiwan, while her flip-flopping on whether the ROC existed – Hung initially said that recognizing the ROC would create 'two Chinas,' which was 'unacceptable' – raised eyebrows in many circles. After being pressured by party members, Hung eventually reverted to the KMT's favored 'one China, two interpretations' and 1992-consensus formulas, while proposing a 'one consensus, three connotations' (一個共識,三個內涵) platform and assuring us that she would press Beijing to recognize the legitimacy of the ROC Government. 

Hung had nevertheless revealed her ideological foundations and it was difficult to imagine that the apparent softening of her stance wasn't anything more than a tactic to reassure the public ahead of the election.

Although Hung is perfectly entitled to her views in democratic Taiwan, they are nevertheless a problematic position to adopt prior to January. The fact that her beliefs seem to be diametrically opposed to the consensus that has been built across Taiwan, and that they dovetail so perfectly with the position of the authoritarian regime on the other side of the Strait, is probably enough to ensure defeat for the KMT, which currently finds itself in a state of crisis. 

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons 2.0. 

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Explained: A World Where the U.S. Marines Never Picked the F-35

The Buzz

The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is definitely putting a brave, can-do face on its first unit—Squadron 121—of Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs), aiming shortly for a formal declaration of “initial operating capability.” But Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, recently penned a dimmer account for procurement chief Frank Kendall. In recent tests on the helicopter carrier Wasp, he wrote, "aircraft reliability was poor enough that it was difficult for the Marines to keep more than two or three of the six embarked jets in a flyable status on any given day.” The Marines have spent billions on the F-35B and the F-35C. Had they not, they might have spent many fewer on the F-18F, and so far, without a noticeable difference.

Just recently, I covered the question of what the U.S. Navy might have done without a JSF program. In 1992, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney cancelled the Navy’s A-12 carrier-based stealth bomber program, leaving the service without a replacement for its A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair II jets. Needing an under-the-radar solution, the service took up McDonnell-Douglas’s idea for a thorough redesign of the F-18C/D Hornet. The result was the F-18E/F Super Hornet, which has sustained carrier air wings in the absence of those long-delayed F-35Cs. The USMC, however, preferred to wait, and never bought into the evolutionary option. So today, the Corps is planning that F-35Bs will replace its long-serving AV-8B Harrier II+s on Wasp and America-class helicopter carriers, and that F-35Cs will replace its aging first- and second-generation F-18A++, -C, and -D Hornets on Nimitz and Ford-class super-carriers.

Fairly, those aircraft may be old, but they’re still capable, at least for now. The latest Harriers today carry the APG-65 active electronically-scanning array (AESA) radar and the long-range, radar-seeking AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. So those six-plane detachments on the smaller flattops, originally meant just for ground attack, can attack enemy flyers too. Before the Harriers, though, the Marines had no jets of any type on assault ships, and no jets capable of operating ashore from austere facilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, the USMC flew F-4 Phantom IIs, and in the Vietnam War almost solely as bombers. The Phantoms flew a tour from the old carrier America, but mostly from the big airfields at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Nam Phong.

As a marine officer friend of mine once said, if the Marines like something, they call it amphibious, but if they really like it, they call it expeditionary. The Phantom II wasn’t either. The impetus to adopting the Harrier back in the late 1970s was to return to the Corps the rough-field, fixed-wing attack capability that had been lost with the transition to jets. Starting in the 1990s, the F-35B promised to extend that with stealth and supersonic speed. There is also the USMC’s long-running Guadalcanal narrative, in which the Navy once again pulls back the carriers, leaving the Leathernecks exposed on the beach, with just the few F-35Bs of the New Henderson Field to defend them. How well the carefully maintained surfaces of a stealthy aircraft would hold up on those rough fields, however, remains an outstanding question.

But something else has been lost in that second transition. The ongoing complaints about the difficulties of the F-35A and -C as dogfighters were summoned up by the need to make an F-35B. The fat fuselage and the forwarding-looking canopy are artifacts of the placement of the lift-fan directly behind the cockpit. If all-aspect missiles continue to dominate air combat, as John Stillion has shown that they have for decades, then this will not be a problem. Whether advances in electronic warfare could someday challenge that style of war-fighting is yet another outstanding question.

So what would have the Marine Corps done without the promise of that stealthy jump-jet? Today, the early model F-18s and the AV-8Bs would still be aging out, just like the US Air Force's A-10Cs, but without a short take-off, vertical-landing (STOVL) replacement. The questions of these replacements are similar, with yet more similar answers: each service intends to replace its (primarily) ground-attack airplane with versions of the F-35. That accomplishes the existing mission for a whole lot more money, as the F-35’s procurement and operating costs will be much higher. The advantage is that the mission should become much easier with the F-35’s networked communications and its APG-81 AESA radar, which tracks not just aircraft, but moving ground targets.

Of course, there’s another plane in the naval inventory with a ground scanning AESA: the F-18E/F with its APG-79. That radar has had a long history of development problems, but as with the JSF, enough money can solve most. The difference is that this is not a whole stealth fighter, but just a radar. Flying the same aircraft with the same radars off the same carriers as the Navy, just as the Corps does today with those F-18Ds, would be rather economical. For that matter, the Marines are even today planning to split their JSF purchases between STOVL Bs and conventionally-landing Cs, the latter operating alongside Navy squadrons on the same decks.

So as a friend at Naval Air Systems Command once told me, HQMC has always had a Plan B behind the F-35B—it just rhymes with “Super Hornet”. In a world without a JSF program, the USMC would likely by now have begun buying F-18Fs to replace its F-18Ds, and perhaps doubled-down on the two-seaters across the fleet. While Goose and Slider would be disappointed to know that the navigator is no longer in style in a fighter, he’s still a valuable observer for close air support. And as the adage goes, it’s understandable that America’s navy needs its own air force, but America’s navy’s army might not need every aspect of an air force.

What that plan wouldn’t have done is keep jet fighters on helicopter carriers, as the F-35B will do. This would have complicated amphibious raids far from friendly bases, to which the Marines need to bring their own over-the-beach air cover. But around the periphery of the Mediterranean, or near the Persian Gulf, the problem is manageable with land-based fighters. And anywhere in the world, no American theater commander would order a full-fledged amphibious assault without massive air cover from the Navy and the USAF.

So after saving those billions that went into their share of JSF development, could the Marines instead have launched the own analog to the Super Hornet? Could they have paid Boeing to design a Harrier III? Certainly, though working from the preceding design, it wouldn’t have been stealthy, fast, or long-ranged. At least one of those is probably crucial in any future fight in the Western Pacific. Could the Marines have gotten that small-ball plan past a defense secretary? That’s much less likely. Advocates of dedicated close air support aircraft have been having a hard time just defending the exiting fleet of A-10Cs. A wholly new Harrier would offer less armor, less payload, and less range. And in Poland last week, the A-10Cs of the 354th proved “they can land anywhere”. Maybe not quite, but that points to the problem. For the United States, the marginal value of the Harrier may always have been something we now call exquisite. And so perhaps, is the F-35B.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, where this piece first appeared

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