When China’s first domestically-designed and built aircraft carrier slid into the water last month at a shipyard outside Shanghai, it was seen — at home and abroad — as a symbol of Beijing’s fast-growing military might and ambition to develop a “blue water” navy capable of operating far beyond its own shores.
The Fujian, an 80,000-ton, Type 003 warship named after the Chinese province, was considered a technological leap forward over the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first two carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. The Liaoning had been a Soviet-era carrier purchased from Ukraine in the 1990s while the Shandong, although built in China, was based on the Liaoning model.
At this point, the Fujian is better suited as a way for China to “show the flag” than take on the U.S. military in a heated naval battle, said retired Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, a former commander of the USS George Washington carrier strike group. But its PR value should not be underrated, he adds.
“It’s a pretty good ‘calling card’ for [China] when it makes foreign port visits,” said Mr. Montgomery, the director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “It won’t be as impressive as a Ford-class or Nimitz-class [aircraft carrier] but it’s still pretty impressive. So that matters.”
Unlike the first two Chinese carriers, which have the “ski jump” configuration for launching aircraft, the Fujian uses an electromagnetic catapult to send jet fighters into the air. It causes less stress on the aircraft than older steam-powered catapult systems and will allow the Fujian to launch a wider variety of aircraft.
Analysts say the Fujian’s catapult is strikingly similar to the one developed by the U.S. Navy and now employed on the USS Gerald R. Ford, the U.S. Navy’s newest carrier. It is likely to intensify the debate over how much of China’s military technology relies on Western — and especially U.S. — intellectual property and of how much value there is in “military-to-military” contacts as the PLAN closes the still-wide gap with the U.S. and its regional allies.
“There is a significant amount of U.S. technology that appears in China three to five years later,” Mr. Montgomery said. “I’m hard-pressed to think there wasn’t some intellectual property theft here.”
The launch of the Fujian is the latest step in China’s modernization program for the PLAN, as China clashes with countries around the region over its extensive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and territorial disputes with countries ranging from India and Vietnam to the Philippines and Japan.
The PLAN would almost certainly figure heavily in any Chinese military move to “re-claim” Taiwan, the U.S.-allied island democracy that the mainland insists is part of China.
China’s defense ministry has been rapidly turning out warships for more than a decade to meet Beijing’s goal for their navy to operate globally rather than be restricted to near coastal waters.
But as a relative novice to carrier warfare, China will be on a steep learning curve to catch up with the U.S., which has decades’ worth of experience, analysts say. The U.S.Navy has 11 aircraft carriers, more than any other country in the world.
“They’re trying to demonstrate to everyone that they’re on a par with the American navy. Our first aircraft carrier was launched 100 years ago,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain now with the Sagamore Institute think tank.
He was referring to the USS Langley, a coal carrier converted into an aircraft carrier with the installation of a flight deck. It was commissioned in March 1922.
Another plus for the U.S. Navy is the experience of the thousands of sailors who have been assigned to aircraft carriers over the years.
“They’ve done routine deployments so when they show up on the ship. They know their jobs and they know their responsibilities,” Mr. Montgomery said.
The size of the fleet of warships matters and, at least by raw numbers, the U.S. is lacking when compared to the PLAN. As of June 27, 2022, the U.S. Navy had 298 deployable warships of all types and 35 considered “non-deployable” for a variety, according to Navy figures. Meanwhile, China is believed to have well over 350 vessels, making it the biggest maritime force in the world.
“They seem to be moving very fast and they’re learning quickly,” Mr. Hendrix said.
Not yet a rival
Despite the upgrade over its predecessors, the Fujian cannot support jet fighters and attending aircraft to provide the combat power needed to carry out sustained naval operations, Mr. Montgomery said.
“Their ability to operate at distances from land is going to be limited,” he said. “I think it would be an easy target for U.S. submarines.”
While it may not be ready to take on the U.S. Navy in the short term, analysts say the Fujian is an impressive achievement and a concern for the West, especially given China’s increasingly aggressive diplomatic stance in the South China Sea region.
Beijing recently broke ground for a new naval facility in Cambodia and signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands. The move comes as U.S. hopes to shift its military focus to the “Indo-Pacific” region have been complicated by the need to respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
And unlike in Cold War days, when the Soviet Union could not hope to match the West economically, the U.S. and its allies are now confronting a “peer competitor” in Beijing with a strong and growing domestic industrial base and an international economic presence the old Soviet Union never enjoyed.
China’s Defense Ministry strongly hinted late last month that it is considering more carriers down the line. Ministry spokesman Senior Col. Tan Kefei told a briefing that while China considers its naval building program “defensive in nature, national security considerations and technological advances will determine whether China adds its current fleet of three.
“Observers believe that China will have more aircraft carriers in the future if these criteria are applied,” the state-controlled Beijing-based Global Times said of his remarks.
Commentator Hu Xijin, whose writings are said to reflect the thinking of top Chinese Communist Party leaders, wrote last week that the Fujian’s launch is part of a long-term strategy by a Chinese leadership that knows it is not ready yet to challenge American maritime dominance.
“Aircraft carriers are not only the most convenient punching fist of a great power, but also a symbol of national will and strategic deterrence,” Mr. Hu wrote in a June 29 commentary.
“When China develops aircraft carriers, everyone thinks of the United States, but in fact if China and the United States go to war, aircraft carriers are not the only weight that determines the outcome,” he added. “China will not be able to surpass the United States in aircraft carrier strength for many years to come, but our comprehensive combat capability in the Western Pacific makes it entirely possible to have an advantage over the U.S.”
And U.S. analysts say a greater, global reach for China’s navy is just a matter of time.
China “will have the ability to go worldwide as soon as they have the operational experience to be good at it,” Mr. Hendrix said. “They also have the industrial base to really mass-produce these things.”
The PLAN has other naval assets that should be of more concern than its brand-new aircraft carrier, including its Type 055 destroyer and Type 039 submarine, analysts say.
The Type 055 destroyers are large enough to be considered a cruiser by NATO standards. They come equipped with 112 vertical launch tubes, capable of firing long-range missiles against other ships and ground targets. China also produces Type 039 submarines, almost silent due to their diesel-electric powered engines and ability to remain underwater for extended periods of time when operating on batteries.
“Those submarines should impact our planners to a much bigger degree than a single carrier,” Mr. Montgomery said.