- Oct 10, 2009
The Beijing-Brazil Naval Axis
Ever since China not so secretly bought several aging Soviet aircraft carriers during the 1990s, China's ambitious naval plans have been the subject of fevered speculation by military analysts. In March, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie offered the strongest confirmation yet that China plans to embark on a major aircraft-carrier building program, telling his Japanese counterpart, "We need to develop an aircraft carrier." The Pentagon thinks that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could have multiple carriers up and running within the decade, with construction costs likely to run into the billions. With little in the way of naval aviation experience, China would need to get its sailors and pilots up to speed in a hurry to meet that timetable -- and that means finding an already operational carrier to train on.
The trouble is, only four countries still operate carriers capable of launching conventional aircraft. The United States has little interest in helping the Chinese military; France is prohibited from doing so by a European Union embargo; and Russia has recently grown more wary about military cooperation with its powerful southern neighbor. That leaves Brazil, which was only too happy to let PLAN officers train aboard its 52-year-old carrier, the São Paulo (which it bought from France in 2000). Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim revealed the program in an interview with a Brazilian defense website in May. Although the exact terms of the deal are unknown, it is widely thought that the Chinese might be funding a restoration of the aging São Paulo in exchange for the training program. A Chinese naval website also hinted that China might be helping Brazil build nuclear submarines, and Jobim himself said that he hoped the program would lead to military cooperation in other areas.
The United States has long been the dominant naval power in East Asia, but Chinese ships have recently been growing bolder about shadowing and confronting U.S. vessels and launching legal challenges to what Beijing views as unlawful intrusions into Chinese waters. With China and India undergoing massive military buildups -- the Indians are working on a plan to convert a Russian aircraft carrier for their own use -- U.S. naval supremacy may be slipping.
Publicly, the U.S. Navy maintains that a Chinese carrier wouldn't affect the military balance of power in the region, but this year's annual Pentagon report on China's military capabilities warns that the country's modernization campaign could "increase Beijing's options for military coercion."
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