The aircraft carrier has been the focus of intense interest among military observers and rival nations tracking the development of the Chinese Navy. It’s also a milestone in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s multi-year quest to modernize the country’s military and reduce dependence on foreign military suppliers.
The first two tankers in China include a retrofit of an old Soviet model, Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine in 1998, and Shandong, which was built in China but based on the Liaoning model and put into service in 2019.
Analysts say Fujian represents a major step forward in technology and capabilities.
Notably, it is China’s first tanker equipped with an electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft, which means that the Chinese military will be able to launch a wider range of heavy aircraft. Older airlines rely on a “ski jump” configuration that uses a slight slope in the aircraft’s surface to give lift, but limits the size and weight of the aircraft.
“And that’s where this new catapult comes in. You’re essentially launching the aircraft into the air,” said Matthew Funayol, a senior director at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who has closely studied Fujian satellite images since hints of building it in 2018, said.
He said this could enable China to launch a “larger, more diverse and more powerful” fleet once it’s at sea. “What we suspect is that we will see things like surveillance planes that couldn’t take off before from existing carriers. He said he expects the new carrier will likely help with further testing of unmanned aerial vehicles that have been discovered on existing Chinese carriers.”
US aircraft carriers previously used a steam-powered version of the catapult developed decades ago, but in the past five years, new carriers have adopted an electromagnetic launch system similar to that seen in Fujian.
“The important thing for China is that they seem to have skipped steam completely and gone straight to the (electromagnetic mode) launch system. If their system works, which is something we haven’t seen yet, that’s a very big leap for technology,” Funaiole said.
While Chinese military analysts and bloggers have praised the carrier as “China’s response to the USS Gerald R. Ford,” which was commissioned in 2017, much of its capabilities remain unknown. Ford was the world’s largest and most advanced airline when it was built.
“There is very scant information emerging about Fujian and, in this regard, the PLA Navy’s naval carrier programme. The precise capabilities and performance are shrouded in a lot of secrecy,” said Colin Koh, a PLA Navy expert at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Analysts say the carrier will not be completed for at least two years, depending on how long it takes to complete the flight deck and install technology as well as training of personnel and pilots. The ship will then likely need to complete months of sea trials before commissioning.
The revelation of the more advanced Chinese carrier comes amid heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, as China and its neighbors vie for territorial claims. The recent signing and unveiling of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands Offshore facility in Cambodia They raised further concerns about Beijing’s access to the Gulf of Thailand and the South Pacific.
The unveiling of the carrier is also a significant win for X domestically in the run-up to the National People’s Congress later this year, when he is expected to take over for the third time.
It is difficult to express how important the prestige and image of this is for China; “It is the story of the restoration of China’s former glory, of re-emerging on the world stage, of becoming a regional power and then a global power,” said Funayol.
In China – where dates for key events are often chosen for its symbolism – state media noted that the Fujian launch coincided with the 55th anniversary of China’s first successful hydrogen bomb test and the first anniversary of China’s manned space mission Shenzhou 12.
Lyric Lee in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.