Asia Pacific

China's first domestically built aircraft carrier enters service 'at doorstep of South China Sea'

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China announced the delivery and commissioning Tuesday of its second aircraft carrier — the first built domestically — while also revealing its name, the Shandong, state-run media reported.

The carrier entered service at its new home, a naval base in Sanya on Hainan Island “at the doorstep of the South China Sea,” after a “grand commissioning ceremony” overseen by President Xi Jinping, the Global Times reported.

The commissioning of the ship puts China in a small group of nations with multiple aircraft carriers as the country reportedly continues work on building a third.

Around 5,000 people attended the ceremony, singing the national anthem and raising the national flag. President Xi Jinping inspected an honor guard and met with service personnel on board the warship.

The announcement came after the vessel underwent a refitting and sea trials in the wake of its 2017 launch, and is a significant milestone in the country’s efforts to build up its naval power, a push that has been viewed warily by Japan and the United States.

The ship was expected to be officially commissioned in April, but its trial phase took longer than some analysts had expected, suggesting it had suffered technical problems.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a refitted Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel, underwent 13 months of trials before it was commissioned.

The Shandong is a modified version of the Kuznetsov-class design that features upgraded radar and bridge systems and a ski-jump deck for takeoffs, according to analysts.

State media said the ship will also be able to carry 36 J-15 fighter jets compared with the Liaoning’s capacity of 24. Some observers have cast doubt on that claim, and the capabilities of the new vessel, but the Global Times insisted that “the second carrier is not a copy of the first one and is much more powerful.”

Choosing Sanya as its home base was also widely seen as a message that Beijing will not back down in its dispute with other regional powers over the contested South China Sea.

“Sanya provides easy access to the South China Sea and is the largest naval complex of its kind in Asia,” the Global Times said. “Its 700-meter carrier dock is able to service multiple carriers simultaneously and the port also hosts the Yulin nuclear submarine base.”

Beijing claims much of the strategic waterway, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the Chinese, U.S., Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies routinely operate.

Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims there, but both allies have routinely stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the South China Sea, including the construction of man-made islands — such as those in the Paracel chain and further south in the Spratlys — some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry.

The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The U.S. military regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations in the area.

Beijing says it has deployed the advanced weaponry to the islets for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.

Deploying the new carrier to Sanya “is also designed to deter independence-leaning forces in Taiwan,” the Global Times quoted an unidentified military source as saying.

The Shandong passed through the Taiwan Strait for “scientific trials and routine training” last month and headed to the South China Sea.

“That’s why the carrier had been sailing through the Taiwan Strait on its way to Sanya last month,” the source said.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland — by force if necessary.

Beyond the Shandong, China is building a third carrier, satellite photographs released in May by a U.S. think tank showed.

That carrier is expected to be China’s first with a flat deck and catapult launch system, allowing the use of a wider range of aircraft.

But even a third aircraft carrier would keep China far behind the United States, which has 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class “supercarriers” currently in service.