- China has grand ambitions for a world-class navy, and is reportedly building two more aircraft carriers with enhanced capabilities that would make them among the world’s most powerful navies.
- But it’s unclear what China ultimately intends to do with them. Is it for prestige? To project power? To protect its interests overseas?
- We asked two naval experts to find out more.
The Chinese shipbuilder that’s constructing Beijing’s third aircraft carrier, Type 002, leaked an artist’s impression of that carrier on social media in late June that heightened intrigue about China’s naval ambitions before quickly taking it down.
The China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation photo showed the future Type 002 with a large flight deck that featured an angled landing strip and three electro-magentic catapult launching systems — all of which represent a technologic leap to the kind of supercarriers fielded by the US Navy.
It’s expected to be a 70,000-ton ship that’s finished by 2021, if all goes according to plan.
Compare that to China’s second carrier, Type 001A — it has a built-in ski jump on the flight deck and uses an old-fashioned short take-off but arrested recovery launching system that limits the speed of launches and the size of the armaments fighters carry.
Type 002’s features will be much more advanced than Type 001A , allowing the People’s Liberation Army-Navy to deploy a greater number and variety of aircraft — and to deploy the aircraft more quickly. If the supercarrier works as planned — and that’s a big, if — it would make the Chinese navy one of the most powerful in the world.
And this appears to be just the beginning.
China has grand ambitions for a world-class navy, and is even building a fourth carrier , which will reportedly be nuclear-powered and possibly match the specifications of the US’ Nimitz-class carriers the US Navy has operated for half a century.
A modern supercarrier would leap China ahead of Russia, which has only one carrier that’s breakdown-prone, to rival only France and the United States, the only navies that boast nuclear-powered supercarriers that launch planes with catapults.
The “interesting question is what do they intend these carriers to do,” Daniel Kliman, a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told Business Insider. “What would it enable China to achieve?”
“A lot of it’s prestige,” Kliman said. And prestige is also about domestic politics.
“There’s a lot of popular attention in China to its carrier program,” said Kliman, who added that a supercarrier is also an effective means to project power in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, much as the US has used them for decades.
“Beyond that, China does see a real need to protect its far-flung investments and protect market access overseas,” Kliman said. “Carriers are certainly useful in that role.”
Whatever the intentions, these supercarriers would vastly expand China’s ability to project power into contested areas at sea and to fly missions overland.
“Either they’re going to try to take the fight to the enemy or it’s about prestige,” Eric Wertheim, a naval expert with the US Naval Institute, told Business Insider, adding that it’s probably “a little bit of both.”
Wertheim said that people were seen crying when China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned because “there was such pride.”
Wertheim and Kliman also agreed that China would initially use their current and future carriers to project power in the East and South China Seas, especially the latter.
Ultimately though, China really doesn’t need carriers to achieve its territorial objectives in the East and South China Seas. “Everything’s within land-based aircraft,” Kliman said.
So “is their goal to just dominate Asia” or to project power in other waters? Wertheim asked.
Last year, China opened an overseas military base (its first ever overseas base) in Africa, where it continues to invest and compete for interest.
“We really don’t know what [China’s] intention [are],” Wertheim said.