China has launched its first domestically produced aircraft carrier, in a demonstration of its determination to safeguard its maritime territorial claims.
The 50,000-ton carrier was towed from its dockyard this morning in the northern port city of Dalian, where the Soviet-built Liaoning carrier was refurbished before being commissioned in 2012.
Development of the new carrier began in 2013 and construction in late 2015. It’s expected to be formally commissioned sometime before 2020.
Vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Fan Changlong presided over the launch, which was also attended by Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, a former commander of the fleet responsible for defending China’s South China Sea claims.
Like the 60,000-ton Liaoning, which was purchased from Ukraine, the carrier is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov class design, with a ski jump-style deck and an oil-fuelled steam turbine power plant.
China is believed to be planning to build up to four more carriers. These are expected to be closer in size to the US Navy’s nuclear-powered 100,000-ton Nimitz class ships.
Michael Chase, an expert on the Chinese military at US think tank the RAND Corporation, said 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.” That will be especially worrying to Indian security analysts who are already concerned about Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean, he added.
India 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 behaviour 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,” he added.
According to Chinese reports, the new carrier will carry 24 Shenyang J-15 fighters, based on the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, along with 12 helicopters for anti-submarine warfare, airborne early warning and rescue operations. That compares to the 90 aircraft and helicopters carried by a Nimitz-class carrier.
The new carrier is part of an a huge expansion of the Chinese navy, which is projected to have a total of 265-273 warships, submarines and logistics vessels by 2020, according to the Washington, DC-based Center for Naval Analysis. That compares with 275 deployable battle force ships in the US Navy.
China has offered little information about the roles it expects its carriers to play. The Liaoning was initially touted as an experimental and training platform, but in December was declared to be combat-ready and has taken part in live-firing exercises in the South China Sea.