China has commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier on the edge of the disputed South China Sea, in a move observers say is designed to both highlight its growing military clout and give pause to Japan, the United States and Taiwan.
The country’s second carrier, named the Shandong, entered service after a “grand commissioning ceremony” in front of 5,000 people and overseen by President Xi Jinping at a naval base in Sanya “at the doorstep of the South China Sea” on China’s southern Hainan Island, state media reported.
Footage aired by China Central Television showed Xi boarding the ship to present a flag and certificate, sign the visitors’ log and greet sailors. He also inspected aircraft and toured the bridge and flight coordination operations center.
“Commending China’s achievements in aircraft carrier construction, Xi encouraged them to continue their efforts to make new contributions in the service of the party and the people,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
From Hainan, the new carrier will be able to project power throughout the disputed South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait with relative ease, observers say — much to the chagrin of other regional powers, including the U.S. and Japan.
The commissioning of the ship also puts China in a small group of nations with multiple aircraft carriers, including the U.S. and the U.K., as it reportedly continues to work on building a third.
A two-carrier China will keep Japan busy.
As a part of China’s military modernization push, its air force and navy have conducted a series of drills as it seeks to extend its reach further into the Western Pacific via these “regular” exercises, forcing the Air Self-Defense Force to scramble fighters at a record pace in recent years.
And while Tokyo might be more focused on the Liaoning, which is homeported in the northern city of Qingdao, closer to Japan’s immediate environs, “now there’s a need to keep another eye on the second carrier to the south,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
While some observers have dismissed aircraft carriers as obsolete in the age of extremely accurate hypersonic missiles, including those possessed by China, others have claimed they remain powerful tools of statecraft.
When it comes to China’s new carrier, it is both a symbol of prestige and an example of real military capabilities.
“China has long lamented that it’s the only UNSC P5 member without a (domestically built) aircraft carrier,” said Koh, referring to the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members. “A carrier capability is meant to demonstrate China’s growing military clout that’s commensurate with its growing international diplomatic and economic stature.”
But, added Koh, the carrier is also meant to give China’s Communist Party leadership viable political options.
“Beijing would have learned much from the U.S. use of carriers in peace and wartime,” he said.
Koh pointed to the United States’ use of the USS Nimitz and USS Independence as a “fire brigade” in helping defuse tensions during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, by deterring further Chinese aggression against the island nation.
During that crisis, China conducted provocative missile tests to try and influence Taiwan’s first direct presidential election. In response, U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered the largest display of U.S. military power in Asia since the Vietnam War, sending the ships to the area around Taiwan in a clear message to Beijing.
That message has continued to resonate with China.
Beijing has poured cash into the building of a world-class navy, and the astronomical costs of an aircraft carrier program show that, for China, the new carrier is more than just a mere symbol of prestige.
Like the Liaoning, the country’s first carrier — a refitted Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel — the Shandong is named after a northern province and is based on a Soviet design with a “ski jump” style flight deck for takeoffs rather than the flat decks used by the much larger American aircraft carriers. It is also powered by a conventional oil-fueled steam turbine power plant, rather than the nuclear fuel U.S. carriers employ.
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 overall capabilities of the new vessel, but the state-run Global Times insisted that “the second carrier is not a copy of the first one and is much more powerful.”
Regardless of how it stacks up against its American counterparts, the vessel is already paying dividends for Beijing.
The Chinese have continued to pour resources into the research and development associated with the carrier program, said Koh, including cutting-edge electromagnetic catapults to launch aircraft, as well as investing in supporting elements such as fleet air defense and large oceangoing fast-combat support ships, while also conducting intensive studies on carrier combat tactics and concepts of operations.
This shows that “they’re dead serious about creating a real capability, not a ‘white elephant,'” he added.
While it remains unclear if the Shandong will be homeported at the base on Hainan Island, the decision to hold the ceremony there was widely seen as Beijing sending a message that it will not back down in its dispute with other regional powers over the contested South China Sea.
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 would also “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, with U.S. and Japanese navy vessels on its tail, later heading 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.
According to Koh, the main reason for basing the Shandong on the edge of the South China Sea would be “to facilitate force projection into both (the) Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.”
Having it based in Sanya would also effectively allow for the staging of operations through the Bashi Channel, to the south of Taiwan, letting it create a southern pincer movement against Taiwan in the event of a contingency, he said.
Beyond the Shandong, China is also 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 with a third aircraft carrier, China would still remain far behind the United States, which has 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class “supercarriers” currently in service.