The sea trials of China’s first domestically-constructed aircraft carrier have sparked a fresh debate about Chinese naval power. Some have argued that the carriers, while still vulnerable in a clash of major powers, would cement Chinese leadership if the United States withdraws from the region. Others have pointed to growing Chinese amphibious capabilities as being the naval point to watch.

It would be better to expect that China’s new aircraft-carrying fleet need not await a major conflict to be valuable – indeed it may be most valuable in the absence of war. Rather than confronting other major navies, these big new ships will go to work instead boosting China’s prestige and standing in the Indo-Pacific regional order. This may happen in two ways: as the peacetime deployment of such a fleet lets China, without direct conflict, dilute U.S. influence in the region; and as the signals sent by aircraft carriers allow a clean break in regional perceptions of China’s status.

China’s 2015 Defense White Paper embraced a combination of “near seas defense” and “far seas protection,” likely giving China by 2030 a “limited expeditionary” capability encompassing natural disasters, evacuations, counterterrorism, and the security of sea lanes. As a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officer stated: “The second carrier will mainly do what a genuine aircraft carrier is supposed to do: running combat patrols and delivering humanitarian aid.” The key is that the humanitarian role is much more than mere rhetoric and deserves close attention.

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