China unveiled its first homegrown aircraft carrier on Friday, a vessel with advanced aircraft launch technology similar to its U.S. counterparts, in an event designed to symbolize the country’s expanding military might.
The carrier has been the focus of intense interest among military observers and rival nations tracking the development of China’s navy. It’s also a major milestone in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s multiyear drive to modernize the country’s military and cut reliance on foreign military suppliers.
China’s first two carriers include a retrofit of an old Soviet model, the Liaoning, bought from Ukraine in 1998, and the Shandong, which was built in China but based on the Liaoning model and commissioned in 2019.
The Fujian represents a big step forward in technology and capabilities, analysts say.
Notably, it’s the first Chinese carrier to be equipped with an electromagnetic catapult for launching aircraft, meaning China’s military will be able to launch a wider range of heavier aircraft. The older carriers rely on a “ski jump” configuration which uses a slight incline in the flight deck to give lift, but limits the size and weight of the aircraft.
“That’s where this new catapult comes into play. You’re essentially slingshotting the aircraft into the air,” said Matthew Funaiole, a senior director at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who has closely studied satellite imagery of the Fujian since hints of its construction emerged in 2018.
He said this could enable China to launch a “larger, more diverse, more robust” fleet once it sets sail. “What we suspect is that we’ll see things like surveillance aircraft that couldn’t take off before from existing carriers. He said he expects the new carrier will also likely aid in further tests of unmanned aerial vehicles detected on China’s existing carriers.
U.S. aircraft carriers have previously used a steam-powered version of the catapult developed decades ago, but in the past five years newer carriers have adopted the electromagnetic launch system similar to the one seen on the Fujian.
“The big thing for China is that they appear to have entirely skipped steam and moved directly to an (electromagnetic-style) launch system. If their system works, which remains to be seen, this is a very significant leapfrogging of technology,” Funaiole said.
While Chinese military analysts and bloggers have hailed the carrier as “China’s answer to the USS Gerald R. Ford,” commissioned in 2017, much of its capabilities are still unknown. The Ford was the world’s largest and most advanced carrier when it was built.
“There’s extremely scant info emanating on the Fujian and, for that matter, the PLA Navy’s carrier program. The exact capabilities and their performance are shrouded in much secrecy,” said Collin Koh, an expert on the People’s Liberation Army Navy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Analysts say the carrier won’t be completed for at least two years, depending on how long it takes to complete its flight deck and install technology as well as train personnel and pilots. The ship will then likely need to complete months of sea trials before going into operation.
The unveiling of China’s most advanced carrier comes amid increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, where China and its neighbors have competing territorial claims. The recent signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands and the unveiling of a naval facility in Cambodia have raised further concerns about Beijing’s reach into the Gulf of Thailand and the South Pacific.
The carrier unveiling is also an important win for Xi domestically in the run-up to the China’s National People’s Congress later this year, when he is expected to take his third term in office.
“It’s hard to express how important the prestige and the image of this is for China; it’s that narrative of recapturing China’s former glory, reemerging on the world stage, becoming a regional power and then global power,” said Funaiole.
In China — where major event dates are often selected for their symbolism — state media pointed out the Fujian launch coincided with the 55th anniversary of China’s first successful hydrogen bomb test and the first anniversary of China’s Shenzhou 12 manned space mission.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.