China has launched its first aircraft carrier built entirely on its own, in a demonstration of the growing technical sophistication of its defense industries, and determination to safeguard its maritime territorial claims and crucial trade routes.
The 50,000 tonne carrier was yesterday towed from its dockyard just after 9am following a ceremony in Dalian, where its predecessor, the Soviet-built Liaoning, also underwent extensive refurbishment before being commissioned in 2012, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said.
Development of the new carrier began in 2013 and construction in late 2015. It is expected to be formally commissioned sometime before 2020, after sea trials and the arrival of its full air complement.
Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Fan Changlong (范長龍) presided over the launch, which came just three days after the anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s symbolic founding in 1949.
Also attending was navy commander Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong (沈金龍), a former commander of the South Sea Fleet responsible for defending China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. Reports of the launch said a bottle of champagne was broken across the ship’s bow and other craft in the port sounded their horns in celebration.
Like the 60,000 tonne Liaoning, which was purchased from Ukraine, the new carrier is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov class design, with a ski jump-style deck for taking off and a conventional oil-fueled steam turbine power plant.
That limits the weight of payloads its planes can carry, its speed and the amount of time it can spend at sea relative to US nuclear-powered carriers.
The main hull of the new carrier has been completed and its power supply put into place. Next are mooring tests and the debugging of its electronic systems, the defense ministry said.
China is believed to be planning to build at least two and possibly as many as four additional carriers, with one of them, the Type 002, reported to be already under construction at a shipyard outside Shanghai.
They are expected to be closer in size to the US Navy’s nuclear-powered 100,000 tonne Nimitz class ships, with flat flight decks and catapults to allow planes to launch with more bombs and fuel aboard.
Along with their role in protecting China’s maritime interests, Chinese naval strategists see the carrier program as “about having naval power commensurate with China’s international status, to impress both external and domestic audiences,” said Michael Chase, an expert on the Chinese military at US think tank RAND Corp.
The new carrier “is likely to be seen as further evidence of China’s desire to become the most powerful and influential country in the region,” Chase said.
That will be especially worrying to Indian security analysts who are already concerned about Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean, he said.
India, along with Taiwan and Japan which also view Chinese carriers as threats, will likely respond by building new submarines and anti-ship missiles, said Ian Easton, a research Fellow at The Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
China’s “expansionist behavior in the South China Sea and its aggressive efforts to undermine the security of Taiwan and Japan, in particular, have translated into a situation where few countries now trust that Beijing has benign motives,” Easton said.
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