China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier, burnishing President Xi Jinping’s credentials as commander-in-chief ahead of a Communist Party leadership reshuffle this year. The warship was floated at a shipyard in the northeastern port of Dalian in a ceremony attended by General Fan Changlong, second only to Xi on the Central Military Commission, according to a statement on the Ministry of National Defense’s website. A bottle of champagne was ceremonially smashed on the vessel’s bow before the ship was escorted from dry dock, the ministry said.
The aircraft carrier program lies at the heart of China’s effort to build a “ blue water” navy capable of projecting power beyond the country’s coast and protecting increasingly far-flung interests. Xi has made overhauling and modernizing the People’s Liberation Army a centerpiece of his agenda since taking power in 2012.
The aircraft carrier — the second in an estimated fleet of as many as six such ships — was based on the design of the Liaoning, a Soviet vessel China bought from Ukraine, refitted and put to sea almost six years ago. Launching the carrier allows Xi to tout an historic milestone before he presides over the ruling party’s twice-a-decade congress, in which roughly half of its Central Committee is expected to be replaced.
“China has this ambitious goal of acquiring more aircraft carriers,” said Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist at RAND Corp. who has written about China’s aircraft carrier program for the U.S. Naval War College Review. “The program has different drivers, but the one that cannot be discounted is prestige and status for Chinese leaders.”
The new carrier, known for now as Type 001A, is being built by the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corp. Construction of a third is already underway by China State Shipbuilding Corp. at the Jiangnan shipyard near Shanghai. Defenses analysts at military-affliated research groups have told state media that the country needs at least three more.
“Launching is a key juncture of aircraft-carrier building and marks a significant achievement for our country’s home-built and designed carrier,” the defense ministry said. The carrier will still require years of fitting, testing and sea trials.
Nonetheless, China Shipbuilding Industry Co., the Type 001A builder’s listed unit, fell as much as 4.6 percent in Shanghai trading on Wednesday, the most since January. On Tuesday, the company reported full-year profit of 698 million yuan ($101 million), compared with analysts’ estimates of 663 million yuan.
The launch came as the region’s long-dominant naval power, the U.S., deployed a strike group led by the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific in response to tensions around North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. China’s first two carriers — limited by their ski-jump decks, diesel propulsion systems and limited overseas bases — pose little challenge to the U.S.’s supercarriers.
While Liaoning’s political commissar in November declared the carrier “combat ready,” the PLA Navy has largely used it for training. The carriers were expected to be limited to forays beyond the so-called First Island Chain, Scobell said, using the term for the string of archipelagos that stretches from Japan, past Taiwan to the Philippines — all U.S. security partners.
The new carrier has more advanced weapons systems than the Liaoning, said Ni Lexiong, director of the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law’s Sea Power and Defense Policy Research Institute. The ship will accommodate more J-15 fighter jets, carry China’s most advanced S-band radar and feature four batteries of HQ-10 short-range air-defense missiles, Ni said.
“It signals the PLAN’s growing capabilities, which were achieved at a fast pace,” Ni said.
The Liaoning displaces a maximum of about 60,000 tons. The Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan, by comparison, displaces 97,000 tons while the Carl Vinson displaces about 103,000 tons.
The first two Chinese carriers are hampered by the lack of steam catapults launching systems used by the U.S., according to Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the military transformations program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. That means the J-15s must carry more fuel and limit ordnance loads. China may attempt to install a steam catapult system on its third carrier.
Scobell said it might be decades before China possesses multiple large aircraft carriers and becomes adept at operating them. By then, more sophisticated “carrier-killer” missiles and other new systems to deny them access to certain waters may make them less relevant.
“Some of my colleagues in Washington say: China, build all the carriers you want,” Scobell said. “It’s going to spend a lot of money, a lot of effort, but to what end?”