Beijing reached a major naval milestone Friday, launching the country’s third aircraft carrier, one both designed and built in China and far more advanced than its predecessors.
A ceremony was held for the carrier, known as the Fujian, also the name of a southeastern Chinese province, at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai. Footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed platoons of white-uniformed naval personnel applauding as coloured smoke and streamers covered the giant ship.
On the deck, large red and white signs proclaimed “Deliver combat power – fighting to fully build a world-class navy.”
Designated a Type 003 carrier by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the Fujian is equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and aircraft-launch technology, similar to that found on Western carriers. It caps years of expansion by China’s navy, now the world’s largest, as it seeks to become a truly global, “blue water” force.
With Friday’s launch, China overtakes the United Kingdom to have the second highest number of aircraft carriers, though it is still far behind the United States, which has 11 carriers in service. China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, was repurposed from a Soviet vessel first commissioned in the 1980s, while the Shandong, launched in 2017, was built in China but based largely on the Liaoning design.
Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst with the defense intelligence company Janes, described the new carrier as “an important milestone for China’s military-industrial complex.”
“This shows that Chinese engineers are now able to indigenously manufacture the full suite of surface combatants associated with modern naval warfare, including corvettes, frigates, destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and now an aircraft carrier,” he said. “This ability to construct a very complex warship from the ground up will inevitably result in various spinoffs and benefits for Chinese shipbuilding industry.”
Unlike the other PLAN carriers, the Fujian employs a catapult aircraft launch system, similar to that used by the US Navy.
Such a system puts less stress on the aircraft than older steam-type catapult launch systems, and the use of a catapult means that the ship will be able to launch a broader variety of aircraft, which is necessary for China to be able to project naval power at a greater range, Mr. Rahmat said.
“The catapults allow aircraft to carry a more extensive load of weapons in addition to external fuel tanks,” Rahmat said.
Launch of the Fujian comes amid growing tension between China and the United States and its allies, particularly over Taiwan. The province for which the carrier is named is geographically opposite the self-ruled island.
Speaking at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend, China’s Minister of National Defense, Wei Fenghe, said Beijing will “resolutely crush any attempt to pursue Taiwan independence.”
“Let me make this clear,” said General Wei, “if anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China, we will not hesitate to fight. We will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China.”
In recent months, Chinese officials have begun claiming that the Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from the mainland, is not part of international waters. The US and other nations, including Canada, regularly carry out “freedom of navigation” operations through the waterway to assert just that.
“There is no legal basis of ‘international waters’ in the international law of the sea,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said this week. “It is a false claim when certain countries call the Taiwan Strait ‘international waters’ in order to find pretext for manipulating issues related to Taiwan and threatening China’s sovereignty and security. China is firmly against this.”
Along with Ottawa’s allies, Canada’s navy has also carried out operations in the South China Sea, the vast waterway bordering 10 countries, almost all of which is claimed by Beijing as its sovereign territory.
In recent years, China has heavily militarized the sea, building up islets and reefs and outfitting them with runways and missile systems. Late last year, the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong entered the disputed waters for “combat-oriented exercises,” according to state media.
With a file from the Associated Press.
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