China has completed construction of its first independently designed aircraft carrier. In a ceremony held on April 26, the new carrier left the Dalian shipyard in Liaoning province. The ship will eventually allow China to operate globally and expand its influence.
The carrier is unnamed (it is currently now referred to as Type 001A) and will not become fully operational until at least 2020. In the meantime, China will operate one carrier, the Liaoning, which was acquired from Ukraine in 1998.
It’s unclear what specific technologies and aircraft types the Chinese will use on the carrier. However, one thing is clear: China’s regional hegemony in the South China and East China seas has been bolstered.
Competition for resources in the South China Sea is fierce and pitting China against its lesser rivals: Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam. At stake are access to large fisheries and over 10 billion barrels of oil. As China’s population will hit nearly 1.5 billion people in 2020, the need for oil, natural gas and seafood will motivate Beijing to increase its control over the South China Sea. A second carrier will allow Beijing to project superior military force against these rivals, whose navies are technologically inferior.
A second carrier will give Beijing the clear power projection capability it desperately seeks
The United States will continue to enjoy military superiority in the region should any military conflicts between the two nations occur. However, it’s becoming clear that President Donald Trump has ceded the region to Beijing in exchange for support to reign in the reclusive Kim Jong-un regime. If vital commercial shipping routes in the region are not threatened, the United States is likely to refrain from using any military force to resolve disputes between Beijing and its South China Sea claimants.
A second carrier will give Beijing the clear power projection capability it desperately seeks. For example, it could deploy the carrier off the coast of Africa if its growing interests on the continent are threatened. It could also be deployed to locations such as South America and the Middle East where Beijing’s influence could be exerted to support international efforts against terrorist organizations or piracy.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy has plans for several more carriers in the future. Reports indicate Beijing would like to have at least six aircraft carriers. Such a force in the coming decades will enhance its capabilities to challenge Washington around the globe.
The United States has enjoyed a robust and lethal naval force for decades. However, when China’s second carrier is fully operational, Washington will have to rethink its strategic posturing in the region to remain the strongest military presence. Those efforts will then have to be compounded when China achieves its goal of deploying at least six carriers worldwide in the coming five to 10 years.