China was making final preparations to launch its first domestically built aircraft carrier as itmarked the 68th anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy on Sunday.
The scaffolding around the ship, temporarily named the Type 001A, was removed and the deck was cleared, Shanghai-based news portal thepaper.cn reported, suggesting that the launch date was getting close.
However, experts said tidal conditions yesterday were not conducive for a launch to mark the navy’s birthday, and expected a ceremony to take place in the next few days.
Enthusiasts flocked to the pier in Dalian, Liaoning province and pictures online showed naval officers having rehearsals for the launch ceremony.
The new carrier, with a displacement of 70,000 tonnes, is 315 metres long, 75 metres wide and has a cruising speed of 31 knots.
It is slightly larger than the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, which was refurbished from the semi-completed Soviet carrier Varyag, which Beijing bought from a Ukrainian shipyard in 1998.
From the successful refitting of the Liaoning in 2011 and its commission a year later, China spent just five years to produce the 001A. Even though its layout is almost the same, the new carrier features the latest equipment, including a bigger hangar to carry more J-15 fighters and more space on deck for helicopters and other aircraft.
Commentaries published by party mouthpiece People’s Daily on the PLA Navy anniversary yesterday said a strong maritime force was crucial.
“Facing the increasingly complicated maritime security and sovereignty struggle, a strong navy is necessary to protect national sovereignty and maritime rights, overseas interests and take part in international cooperation,” one of the opinion pieces said.
Another commentary said the nation’s aircraft carrier fleet had participated in training in the western Pacific last year, and that the launch of a new carrier was a sign that China was mastering naval technology.
But military observers said the launch of the new carrier represented only modest progress in China’s military modernisation, given the technological gap between the PLA Navy and its most powerful rival in the Asia-Pacific region, the US Navy.
The Pentagon claimed it would shift 60 per cent of US naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 under the so-called pivot to Asia under the administration of former US president Barack Obama. His successor, Donald Trump, so far has not repudiated that strategy, and has even proposed a 10 per cent increase in defence spending this year, with a long-term goal of adding 60,000 troops to the army and expanding the US Navy to 350 ships from 272 today.
Hong Kong-based military analyst Liang Guoliang said that with the launch of the Type 001A, China would still only have two carriers, with the new ship requiring two or three years before it was put into full service. He noted that the US has 10 carrier strike groups, with at least four deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The US navy has 9.5 million tonnes of shipping, while China has just 400,000 tonnes, or 4 per cent of the US capability. The US also has different kinds of carrier-based fighters, including its advanced carrier variants of the F-35 fighter … while China just has the J-15,” Liang said.
“Meanwhile, the US has more than 200,000 marines, while China is just trying to expand its force to 100,000.
“I think the Chinese military should realise that there are still huge gaps in both hardware and software between the two countries’ maritime capabilities.”
By Minnie Chan