Stealth in Beijing

But the Taiwan example also points to the limits of China's military modernisation. China still has very little ability to project military force more than a few hundred kilometres beyond its shores. There are of course exceptions to this judgement: China has a handful of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles with global reach, and it is developing cyber warfare capabilities that know no geographical limits.

And then there's the aircraft carrier. In September the PLA Navy accepted into service a Russian vessel purchased half-finished in 1998 and then methodically refitted in Chinese shipyards for naval service. The Pentagon's latest report on China's military says parts for a home-built follow-on carrier may already have been ordered.

If ever there was a symbol of military power projection, the aircraft carrier is it. Nuclear weapons aside, there is no more powerful weapons system for deployment far from a nation's shores than a carrier. America has 11 super-carriers. No other nation even comes close to that kind of capability, and no one is suggesting China aims to surpass the US. Where the US is concerned, China's strategy seems to be to develop a kind of spoiling force with the ability to make it very difficult for the US to dominate the region, but which cannot itself dominate Asia's seas. Carriers have very little role in that strategy.

But when it comes to China's regional neighbours, Beijing seems to have higher ambitions. Were it to deploy more than one carrier with high-performance stealth fighters like the J-31, China would become the pre-eminent regional maritime power, with the ability to coerce neighbours in disputes in which the US prefers not to get involved.

That scenario is still several years away, perhaps a decade or more. China is still learning how to land a fixed-wing aircraft on its first carrier. But a recent article by China military expert Andrew Erickson says China's military shipbuilding has advanced to the point where it can produce modern vessels at a rate matching any country except the US. Military planners as far away as Australia and India are troubled by such developments.

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