According to local Chinese media outlets, the Chinese government has decided to sell its first and only aircraft carrier to Pakistan. More specifically, the Liaoning will be sold to Pakistan for a yet-undetermined price in order to upgrade the Pakistani Navy’s capabilities.
But why would the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy proceed to sell its only active aircraft carrier? Geopolitics. China and India have been entangled in a geostrategic tango for decades. They even went to war in the early 1960s over a territorial border dispute. The addition of an aircraft carrier to the Pakistani Navy’s arsenal will make it more competitive with respect to its Indian rival, which has an operational aircraft carrier. Since the violent partition of 1947—which resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent people—Pakistan and India have been mortal enemies.
The Liaoning was first commissioned for the Soviet Navy in the 1980s and was expected to enter service in the early 1990s. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, frustrated these plans, and the unfinished structure was sold to Ukraine. The hull ended up in China, which rebuilt and recommissioned the ship and declared it operational only three years ago, in 2016.
The Chinese Navy plans to replace the Liaoning with up to six nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The Chinese government announced its plans to have six carrier battlegroups by 2035. Aside from being potent machines of naval warfare, aircraft carriers serve as the ideal foreign policy tools. For example, just the appearance of an American aircraft carrier close to the shores of a country could deter actions hostile to U.S. interests. Considering China is vying to replace America as the world’s superpower, the expansion is necessary.
“China’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are expected to join the navy by 2035, bringing the total number of carriers to at least six—although only four will work at the front line. The country needs to keep developing until it is at the same level as the United States,” said Wang Yunfei, a former Chinese naval officer.
Such an attitude, however, raises some questions. The U.S. Navy wasn’t able to dominate the oceans overnight. American naval superiority began after the long and bloody campaigns against the Imperial Japanese Navy and Nazi Kriegsmarine in the Second World War. It was only solidified after many decades of undeclared warfare with the Soviet Navy around the world. Carrier operations are intensely complex affairs, requiring years of trial and error to perfect. The Chinese Navy doesn’t have that experience, and that experience can only be gained the hard way—through warfare.