Chinese President Xi Jinping formally commissioned on Tuesday (December 17) the country’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, known as the Shandong, on the southern island of Hainan, a deployment that will shift the strategic balance in the South China Sea.
Symbolically accompanied by two close allies, Zhang Youxia, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Vice-Premier Liu He, lead trade negotiator with the United States, Xi used the occasion to celebrate China’s emergence as a major naval power amid intensifying disputes in adjacent waters.
The 50,000-tonne carrier was built in Shandong province at the northern port of Dalian, where the country’s other purchased aircraft carrier is berthed. The decision to formally commission and base the Shandong at a major facility on the coast of the South China Sea signals Beijing’s future intentions, namely deployment of ever-larger and more advanced warships to the contested waterway.
Currently, China is the only South China Sea claimant state with an aircraft carrier, giving it an extra edge over smaller rivals such as Vietnam and the Philippines. China has also now joined an exclusive club of nations, namely the US, UK and Italy, which have more than one aircraft carrier in operation, underscoring its emergence as a major global naval power.
China now boasts the world’s second biggest maritime fleet and largest naval fleet, meaning it now has more warships than the US.
In the past decade, China has deployed among the world’s largest frigates (Type 055), the largest coast guard vessels, a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines and an armada of para-military and coast guard forces roaming adjacent waters with what critics view as growing impunity.
In the coming decades, China is expected to deploy as many as six aircraft carriers to regional and international waters. A third, larger and more advanced domestically built version is reportedly under construction at the Jiangnan shipyard outside Shanghai.
The Shandong draws heavily on the design of the Soviet-built Liaoning, the country’s first aircraft carrier based on a retrofitted Ukrainian ship acquired in 1998.
Unlike America’s nuclear-powered carriers, China’s existing carriers are relatively small and have more rudimentary, Soviet-era features. They are only capable of launching between 20-40 aircrafts, less than half the number of its US counterparts, which have more powerful and advanced catapult launch technology.
The Shandong is designed to host up to 36 J-15 fighter jets, 50% more than the 24 hosted by its existing carrier. That’s still substantially less, though, than the 96 fighters US carriers can host.
Nonetheless, the Shandong’s launch underscores China’s surging naval reach. According to a report by the US Pentagon,
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) “continues to develop into a global force, gradually extending its operational reach beyond East Asia into a sustained ability to operate at increasingly longer ranges.”
“This is a major milestone for China,” Matthew Funaiole, a Washington-based expert, told US media. “There are only a handful of countries capable of fielding aircraft carriers, and China now has two, which puts it in elite company.”
The Shandong was already making geo-strategic waves before its formal commissioning.
Last month, China deployed the then-still-unnamed carrier through the Taiwan Strait, in a major show of force amid rising tensions with both Washington and Taipei. China was quick to portray the carrier’s passage as an innocent exercise, part of what officials characterized as “scientific tests and routine drills.”
“The organization of the trials and drills of the domestic aircraft carrier through the region is a normal arrangement in the construction process of the aircraft carrier,” according to a statement issued by China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). “It is not aimed at any specific target and has nothing to do with the current situation.”
Taiwan, however, accused China of intimidation tactics ahead of next month’s sensitive presidential elections, where the anti-Beijing incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, is leading handsomely in polls. Chinese leader Xi has vowed to “reunite” Taiwan with the mainland in 2020.
There are wider regional concerns that China’s expanding naval prowess will translate into more regular deployments to nearby and contested waters. Those concerns will grow as the next generation of Chinese carriers are expected to be much larger and technologically more advanced.
China’s envisioned third carrier, currently under construction and unnamed, will likely have a flat deck and more powerful electromagnetic catapult launch system, which would allow for the hosting of a greater number of heavy and advanced fighter jets.
Now with two carriers and a rapidly modernizing naval fleet, China will be in an even stronger position to impose its will on neighboring states with competing sea claims in the years ahead.
Following a difficult year, marked by massive anti-China protests in Hong Kong and rising trade and military tensions with the US, Xi still managed to end the year in military style. At the Shandong’s formal launch, the Chinese leader even sat in the cockpit of a fighter jet parked on the carrier.
Despite rising tensions with the US in the South China Sea, Xi and his lieutenants exuded palpable confidence at the carrier’s launch. As he said during a 2018 visit to Hainan, an island that juts into the South China Sea, “[W]e do not need to chase [other nations] – we are the road.”