China’s new aircraft carrier and espionage in the internet age — Q&A with former Australian intelligence analyst Sam Roggeveen

Politics & Current Affairs

The cloak and dagger business isn’t what it used to be, and China’s Type 003 carrier isn’t going to fight any big wars: These are some takeaways from my chat with Sam Rogeveen, a former top spy for America’s staunch southern ally.

Illustration for The China Project by Nadya Yeh

Australians, like people from other countries that have to manage relationships with both the United States and China, often have a clearer view of what’s really going on in the Indo-Pacific than people from either of the superpowers.

Sam Roggeveen is among the clear-eyed: He is Sydney-based Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, which he joined after working as a senior strategic analyst in Australia’s top intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments.

I called him to ask all about China’s third and most modern aircraft carrier, which launched on June 17, and we also chatted about spying. This is an edited, abridged transcript of our conversation, part of my Invited to Tea series of interviews.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

You recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy titled China’s “Third aircraft carrier is aimed at a post-U.S. Asia,” which came out shortly after the new ship was launched and publicized.

As someone who has deep experience in Australia’s intelligence services, how long have you known about the carrier?

And how well do Australian and American and other Five Eyes countries’ intelligence services understand what’s going on in Chinese military matters?

When it comes to understanding and forecasting the long-term intentions of foreign governments, classified intelligence is actually not very much help.

When you and I examine the daily media clippings and the thought pieces from Chinese experts who are working in academia and in think tanks and so on, we shouldn’t go into that kind of analysis thinking that the intelligence analysts working in the Five Eyes countries have some huge advantage over us in understanding the future. They really don’t.

My experience working in that world is that the intelligence picture that you gain from classified sources is extremely helpful for understanding the future in weeks, maybe broadly out to a year. But after that, it doesn’t help you very much.

Open sources are just as good a guide as classified sources. If anything, I think the tide has turned even further against the classified world since I was involved in it, because open sources are now so copious.

We live in a world of information super-abundance. There’s a part of me that thinks that in the intelligence world, there is still a lot of focus on how we can uncover the other side’s secrets, and too little focus on how we can exploit the stuff that’s already out there, that’s sitting there waiting to be exploited, but which we’re not paying enough attention to. And so much of that is in the open source world.

My area of interest is the PLA. It really is astonishing how much we learn through open sources.

As to the aircraft carrier, I have followed that building process for several years now. Thanks largely to enthusiasts in China who post pictures of the shipyard. And how do they do that? Well, sometimes they sail by in ferries. Sometimes they’ll take pictures out of the window from commercial aircraft that are about to land at Pudong.

So, you’ll see the shipyard through the window of an A320 or a Boeing 737. And these are the kind of insights that spies and defense attachés who worked in those countries would sometimes risk their lives to get in the Cold War era. Now we get them for free, because military enthusiasts — most of them Chinese who just want to show off the military prowess of their country — are posting them online.

Wow. Do we know if there’s another carrier on the way?

There is no evidence yet in the open sources. If they were already building modules, then we would’ve seen that by now. So, that probably indicates that there won’t be a second ship of the particular class of the one they’ve just launched.

It might mean that they are ready to make a leap towards a new design, potentially a bit larger and potentially nuclear-powered. But given that they haven’t even started producing modules yet for such a design, then they are some way off from finalizing it.

So, at least for a while, we’re going to be stuck at three aircraft carriers, and really only one that’s a truly modern design, which is this latest one.

If I may paraphrase, in your article on the third carrier, you explain that the limitations of China’s new carrier — primarily that it’s not nuclear-powered — and America’s fraying security network in the Asia-Pacific suggest that the new Type 003 carrier is not planned as a ship that would actually fight with an American aircraft carrier.

Rather, in your words, Beijing “wants a force that can help the Communist Party coerce or punish smaller powers, not fight a peer competitor.” And you suggest that will be possible in a future where America’s weaker security network will no longer restrain China, at least for its own neighborhood.

Have I characterized that all correctly?

On the paraphrasing question, I’d say you’ve got it almost correct, except I wouldn’t draw a direct link between the fact that this is not a nuclear-powered ship and that therefore it is not designed as a counter to American carriers. I don’t think that there’s a close connection between those two things.

The fact that it’s not nuclear-powered is, I think, more an indicator of the limits of Chinese technology at present. It is still working towards that. Certainly, it has operated nuclear-powered submarines. Although by international standards, those are not considered to be of the highest quality. So, that is something China is still working towards, but it’s not terribly material to the argument I’m making.

And how far away are we from a post-U.S. Asia?

My first thought would be to say that since the end of the Cold War era, American force structure in Asia has basically not changed very much. So, around 25,000 troops in Korea, around 55,000 in Japan. A single carrier battle group based in Yokosuka, etc.

Despite the really dramatic changes we’ve seen in Chinese maritime capabilities in the last 30 years, American force structure has basically been unchanged over that entire period. In that period, also, North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons. America has essentially maintained a military status quo in the post-Cold War period while so much has shifted around it. So there is already a decline in relative American military power in this region, and we are really entering a post-American period by default. In the future, probably the last thing that will happen is that the United States will actually physically remove forces from Asia.

The decline will also be seen in the lessening of American resolve to use its military power. We’re seeing that already. We’re certainly not post-American yet, but we’re moving towards that point because the credibility of the kind of promises that America makes to its friends and allies is eroding due to the sheer scale of China’s military modernization.

Is that causing a great deal of concern in Australia?

The rise of Chinese military power and of China’s assertiveness in the foreign policy sphere is causing tremendous concern in Australia, but that is distinct from the argument I just made about the decline in American resolve. My argument, I would confess, is a minority position in Australia. There are just a few of us who hold that view.

Overwhelmingly the majority position in Australia is that America is in it for the long haul, and the surest and best path towards Australian security is for us to get ever closer to the United States. Thus the AUKUS agreement that we all heard so much about last year, and the plan to acquire eight nuclear powered submarines.

You didn’t specifically mention Taiwan in your article about the Type 003 carrier.

I saw some speculation in the media and online that the carrier is partly intended to threaten Taiwan. Does that make any sense to you?

No, it doesn’t make sense to me. Firstly, Taiwan is so close to China geographically that you simply don’t need seaborne platforms to project air power towards Taiwan. You can do it from the land. And it would be far cheaper to build half a dozen new air bases than to build a single aircraft carrier. And you would get much more capability from them and they’d be less vulnerable.

The loss of such a platform as the Fujian aircraft carrier to Taiwanese anti-ship weapons — or American anti-ship weapons, for that matter — would be an enormous blow to Chinese prestige. So, I doubt a platform like that would be risked in such a contingency. It’s simply not that necessary, and there are enormous risks involved.

You talk about the possible future use of this carrier or other carriers to coerce or punish smaller powers. Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 has said several times that he wants the PLA to be able to fight and win wars. Does he have an enemy in mind? Is the new carrier part of that effort?

I do think that the United States is the country that China most has in mind in terms of its broader foreign policy ambitions. No country of China’s size wants to be a secondary or subsidiary strategic power in its own region. So, China aims to be the leading power and potentially the dominant power in its region. And that means effectively pushing the United States out. That is, I think, the most credible picture that I have of China’s ultimate ambitions in the region.

Where does the aircraft carrier fit into that? Well, actually the argument I make in the article is not very much. Aircraft carriers, all large surface vessels and large surface fleets, are incredibly vulnerable in the modern missile age. They probably wouldn’t last very long in a conflict between peers.

So, we shouldn’t think that China’s building this fleet for the possibility of a Battle of Midway-style confrontation between aircraft carrier fleets. What the United States has learned in the post-Cold War era is that large surface fleets centered around aircraft carriers are actually not wartime weapons, but weapons that help you police the peace. They are essentially constabulary weapons, which help you to enforce your preferred order against countries that seek to buck the order.

That’s why I say these are weapons for a post-American Asia. These are weapons that are designed to help China enforce its vision of a regional order when the United States can no longer project credible power of its own, and when China believes the United States won’t intervene.

How much of China’s aircraft carrier project is motivated by prestige? The idea that China, as a great power, should have a great aircraft carrier?

I understand your point about the policing role of the aircraft carriers, but surely there must be other ways to do that? It seems like a very expensive way of not achieving a great deal?

Yeah. I tend to agree. Look, there’s a bit of a mystery at the heart of this. And if you’ll indulge me, we need to go back a few decades to understand this.

The Chinese began their military modernization drive in earnest in the early 1990s, after they saw America’s performance in the Gulf War. The maritime aspect of that, at least in the initial decade and slightly later, was really centered on this idea that the age of major surface combat was over, and China was going to build a naval force that was centered around that idea.

That meant you build lots of submarines and ships and aircraft that can fire missiles, and just basically overwhelm the defenses of any large surface vessel, including aircraft carriers, and make it impossible for them to operate near your shores.

China has essentially achieved that ambition. Initially, it became unsafe for America to operate its carriers within a few hundred kilometers of China’s shores. Now, it’s well over a thousand because they have longer range weapons and the ability to detect ships at that range.

Basically, China invented a force structure for its navy that was centered around the idea that major surface ships were obsolete. And yet, at the same time, it built such a fleet itself. So, there is a mystery there. Why on earth would they do that if they believe that major surface vessels are obsolete?

One explanation is that, actually, I’m wrong and major surface ships are not obsolete, and China understands that it needs a balanced fleet. That’s one possible explanation.

A second explanation is your one, that China is essentially doing this for prestige reasons. One variation on that is that China is making a mistake, that China’s admirals and politicians are like our admirals and our politicians. They can make colossal mistakes in order to build their prestige or build their own bureaucracies, and crown their rise in concrete and steel. And this is the PLA Navy’s way of doing that.

The third explanation, which is the one that I prefer, and the one I put in the article, is that essentially these are not war-winning weapons. These are policing weapons, constabulary weapons.

I agree with you, there’s a degree of overkill here. It seems an incredibly indulgent and expensive way to do it. But you could argue it has worked for the United States over the last 30 years.

And of course, there is still this prestige element. In the public mind, there is no more potent symbol of state power than the aircraft carrier. So, maybe part of the explanation here is that the Chinese leadership has basically embraced that thinking, even despite the military limitations and shortcomings of such large targets.

I suppose if the purpose is, as you wrote, to coerce or punish smaller powers, as long as the smaller powers themselves also see the aircraft carrier as something that a big country can use to bully you, then it’s going to work. It will have its intended effect?

It will certainly work against countries that are on the margin of being able to defend themselves or not. If you have enough coercive force, you are essentially signaling… You are sending a costly signal and you are telling potential adversaries, “You can’t stand up to us, and it’s better to not even try. It’s better to fall into line now without even coming up with any resistance, because we can throw many more resources at this than you ever will be able to.”

Invited to Tea with Jeremy Goldkorn is a weekly interview series. Previously: 

What the world needs to know about China’s outsize role in electric car future: Q&A with Henry Sanderson