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China Is Obsessed with Building And Sinking Aircraft Carriers

China Aircraft Carriers
PACIFIC OCEAN (July 26, 2016) The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Yukon (T-AO 202). Carl Vinson is underway with embarked Carrier Air Wing 2 and Destroyer Squadron 1 conducting the Tailored Ship's Training Availability (TSTA) and Final Evaluation Problem in preparation for their upcoming deployment. During TSTA, Afloat Training Group Pacific evaluates training drills and real-world scenarios, while placing an emphasis on damage control, flight deck operations and simulated combat. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Patrick W. Menah Jr./Released) 160726-N-LQ653-108 Join the conversation:

More than twenty years ago, a military confrontation in East Asia pushed the United States and China uncomfortably close to conflict. Largely unknown in America, the event made a lasting impression on China, especially Chinese military planners. The Third Taiwan Crisis, as historians call it, was China’s introduction to the power and flexibility of the aircraft carrier, something it obsesses about to this day.

The crisis began in 1995. Taiwan’s first-ever democratic elections for president were set for 1996, a major event that Beijing naturally opposed. The sitting president, Lee Teng-hui of the Kuomintang party, was invited to the United States to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University. Lee was already disliked by Beijing for his emphasis on “Taiwanization,” which favored home rule and established a separate Taiwanese identity away from mainland China. Now he was being asked to speak at Cornell on Taiwan’s democratization, and Beijing was furious.

The Clinton administration was reluctant to grant Lee a visa—he had been denied one for a similar talk at Cornell the year before—but near-unanimous support from Congress forced the White House’s hand. Lee was granted a visa and visited Cornell in June. The Xinhua state news agency warned, “The issue of Taiwan is as explosive as a barrel of gunpowder. It is extremely dangerous to warm it up, no matter whether the warming is done by the United States or by Lee Teng-hui. This wanton wound inflicted upon China will help the Chinese people more clearly realize what kind of a country the United States is.”

In August 1995, China announced a series of missiles exercises in the East China Sea. Although the exercises weren’t unusual, their announcement was, and there was speculation that this was the beginning of an intimidation campaign by China, both as retaliation against the Cornell visit and intimidation of Taiwan’s electorate ahead of the next year’s elections. The exercises involved the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Corps (now the PLA Rocket Forces) and the redeployment of Chinese F-7 fighters (China’s version of the MiG-21 Fishbed fighter) 250 miles from Taiwan. Also, in a move that would sound very familiar in 2017, up to one hundred Chinese civilian fishing boats entered territorial waters around the Taiwanese island of Matsu, just off the coast of the mainland.

According to, redeployments of Chinese long-range missile forces continued into 1996, and the Chinese military actually prepared for military action. China drew up contingency plans for thirty days of missile strikes against Taiwan, one strike a day, shortly after the March 1996 presidential elections. These strikes were not carried out, but preparations were likely detected by U.S. intelligence.

In March 1996, China announced its fourth major military exercises since the Cornell visit. The country’s military announced a series of missile test zones off the Chinese coastline, which also put the missiles in the approximate direction of Taiwan. In reality, China fired three missiles, two of which splashed down just thirty miles from the Taiwanese capital of Taipei and one of which splashed down thirty-five miles from Kaohsiung. Together, the two cities handled most of the country’s commercial shipping traffic. For an export-driven country like Taiwan, the missile launches seemed like an ominous shot across the country’s economic bow.

American forces were already operating in the area. The USS Bunker Hill, a Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, was stationed off southern Taiwan to monitor Chinese missile tests with its SPY-1 radar system. The Japan-based USS Independence, along with the destroyers Hewitt and O’Brien and frigate McClusky, took up position on the eastern side of the island.

After the missile tests, the carrier USS Nimitz left the Persian Gulf region and raced back to the western Pacific. This was an even more powerful carrier battle group, consisting of the Aegis cruiser Port Royal, guided missile destroyers Oldendorf and Callaghan (which would later be transferred to the Taiwanese Navy), guided missile frigate USS Ford, and nuclear attack submarine USS PortsmouthNimitz and its escorts took up station in the Philippine Sea, ready to assist Independence. Contrary to popular belief, neither carrier actually entered the Taiwan Strait.

The People’s Liberation Army, unable to do anything about the American aircraft carriers, was utterly humiliated. China, which was just beginning to show the consequences of rapid economic expansion, still did not have a military capable of posing a credible threat to American ships just a short distance from of its coastline.

While we might never know the discussions that later took place, we know what has happened since. Just two years later a Chinese businessman purchased the hulk of the unfinished Russian aircraft carrier Riga, with the stated intention of turning it into a resort and casino. We know this ship today as China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, after it was transferred to the PLA Navy and underwent a fifteen-year refurbishment. At least one other carrier is under construction, and the ultimate goal may be as many as five Chinese carriers.

At the same time, the Second Artillery Corps leveraged its expertise in long-range rockets to create the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. The DF-21 has obvious applications against large capital ships, such as aircraft carriers, and in a future crisis could force the U.S. Navy to operate eight to nine hundred miles off Taiwan and the rest of the so-called “First Island Chain.”

The Third Taiwan Crisis was a brutal lesson for a China that had long prepared to fight wars inside of its own borders. Still, the PLA Navy deserves credit for learning from the incident and now, twenty-two years later, it is quite possible that China could seriously damage or even sink an American carrier. Also unlike the United States, China is in the unique position of both seeing the value of carriers and building its own fleet while at the same time devoting a lot of time and resources to the subject of sinking them. The United States may soon find itself in the same position.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the DiplomatForeign PolicyWar is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.

Written By

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Fransisco. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Esquire, The National Interest, Car and Driver, Men's Health, and many others. He is the founder and editor for the blogs Japan Security Watch, Asia Security Watch and War Is Boring.



  1. USofA

    October 10, 2021 at 8:32 pm

    China, doesn’t quite realize how impossible it is to sink a US aircraft carrier.

    Short of using a nuclear missile China won’t be sinking our aircraft carriers any time soon.

  2. Tom Potter

    October 11, 2021 at 6:44 am

    China is obsessed with what they cannot have.And they cannot have American style carriers. The designs are closely held secrets. Also, they seem to think that their fantasy mossiles.can somehow do what no one else has been able to do, track and hot a moving/maneuvering combat vessel in the open ocean. China has big dreams but even bigger problems.

  3. Paul Casey

    October 16, 2021 at 4:03 pm

    @USofA and @Tom Potter:
    If you do not separate your obvious national loyalty from your technical analysis you will never be able to see where the danger resides.
    US aircraft carriers obey the same physics as any other vessel and if hit hard enough they will sink.
    Chinese DF21 missiles are no fantasy, they are reputedly able to track ships at sea and course correct in real time, they would be very difficult to stop. The US navy takes the threat that these missiles represent very seriously.
    Meanwhile hyper-sonic missiles that several countries including China are developing are able to overcome current era missile defense systems, a fact that the US navy is acutely aware of and is probably the single most significant reason for the drive towards directed energy weapons, as likely the only way to stop hyper-sonic missile attack.
    China does not need US secrets in order to build super carriers, they are well on their way with their 85,000 ton 3rd carrier soon to be floated out of dry-dock. The Chinese 003 outline has more than a passing resemblance to the never completed Soviet carrier Ulyanovsk. If rumors are correct Ukraine provided China with the entire design plans for the Ulyanovsk – a true flat top partially built in Ukrainian shipyards and then scrapped following the fall of the Soviet Union. That design coupled with modern technical systems make this a significant naval asset – probably still some way behind US carriers but catching up quickly. That all said, the day will come when carriers are more a liability needing massive force protection rather than a major asset other than for making global political statements. You could well argue that that point has already been reached and that the era of US naval dominance – exemplified by their unmatched carrier fleet is fading in the face of exactly the type of missiles China already has along with those in development.

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