Herman Cain appears to have made another foreign-policy gaffe in an interview with PBS’s NewsHour on Monday. He claimed: “[The Chinese] are trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.”
While Cain is of course correct to state that China is a military threat (in the sense that our military is no longer totally dominant in east Asia), his two specific comments on China’s assets suggest a somewhat inaccurate understanding of the issue.
The phrase “nuclear capability,” applied to a nation, refers to its military’s possession of nuclear weapons. In that sense, China is certainly not “developing nuclear capability”: The People’s Republic of China has been a nuclear power since the 1960s — detonating its first nuclear test in 1964, and signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a “nuclear weapons state” in 1968.
However, tonight on Fox News, Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, explained that Cain was, in an inelegant formulation, referring to “the nuclear capability China is getting for their submarines and aircraft carriers.” But this clarification doesn’t do much to help Cain: China launched its first nuclear submarine, part of the Han-class of attack boats, in 1974. In 2004, it launched its class of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile subs, which are capable of launching the strategic nuclear weapons China already had.
Moreover, Cain erred in saying that China is developing “more carriers like we have”: The Chinese navy currently has no carriers, except for an essentially unarmed rusting hulk, the Varyag, purchased from Russia and now on sea trials for training purposes. China is starting to develop aircraft carriers, but, at first, they will be conventionally powered, not nuclear, ships. This is according to the Chinese themselves: They are planning to build two 50–60,000-ton mid-sized aircraft carriers, similar to the Queen Elizabeth–class carriers that the United Kingdom is currently developing, with nuclear- powered ships possibly to come later. Nuclear aircraft carriers would, unlike the production of more nuclear submarines (on which the intelligence remains murky), be a big step for China toward a blue-water navy, meaning one with an independent global range. A nuclear-powered Chinese carrier would be extremely worrisome, but it is not a near-term possibility for China, the rest of whose navy is nowhere near blue-water capability.
Cain would be right to believe that even a conventional Chinese aircraft carrier would be an important development in our security relationship with China: China’s only genuine overseas security threat, as it stands now, is Taiwan, which lies just over a hundred miles offshore. Developing aircraft carriers will give China offensive naval capabilities that its conflict with Taiwan does not justify, though its lack of nuclear carriers and overseas bases would geographically limit that influence to east and south Asia.
Cain deserves some credit for addressing his critics and offering a substantive answer about China as a security threat, confirming reports that he has been cramming on foreign policy, but he still wasn’t completely coherent or informed. Unfortunately, the fact that his campaign manager offered an inaccurate clarification also indicates that the foreign-policy team surrounding him may still be weak, despite his own growing knowledge. He may or may not, in this campaign, have time to integrate his crash courses in foreign policy into a coherent message about America’s global role.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow.