China launches first home-built aircraft carrier in latest display of growing naval power


China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, formally named the Shandong, was launched on Wednesday in the latest display of Beijing’s growing naval power.

The carrier was released into open water from a shipyard in the port of Dalian, northeastern Liaoning province, on Wednesday morning as a bottle of champagne was popped and the national anthem played in the background.

The launch came three days after the 68th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy on Sunday, and against the backdrop of a rising China seeking to project its influence over the regional maritime security pattern.

The announcement of the launch on China’s official media sparked patriotic discussion in China’s online community.

“It’s a symbol of China’s technological power, industrial capability and overall strength,” an internet user wrote on Weibo, the country’s version of Twitter.

Another internet user referred to China’s humiliation in the late 19th century when it was defeated by the Japanese navy, expressing delight that “a great country like China has finally got its own big weapon”.

The ceremony to launch the Shandong was chaired by Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.

President Xi Jinping, who is the commission’s chairman and hence the country’s top military leader, was not present.

The carrier, which had earlier been temporarily named the Type 001A, is China’s second after the Liaoning, a refitted former Soviet Union-made carrier that was put into commission in the PLA Navy in 2012.

The carrier, 315 metres long and 75 metres wide, has a cruising speed of 31 knots and a displacement of 70,000 tonnes.

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.

China started developing the Shandong in November 2013, and building it in the dock in March 2015.

Even though its layout is almost the same as the Liaoning, the Shandong features new equipment and a more advanced operational concept, including a bigger hangar to carry more J-15 fighter jets and more space on deck for helicopters and other aircraft.

But military experts said the launch of the new carrier represented only modest progress of China’s military modernisation, given the huge technological gap between the PLA Navy and its most powerful rival in Asia-Pacific, the US Navy.

“While China is celebrating the launch of its first home-grown aircraft carrier, the country should also be mindful that the United States is possibly deploying its most advanced Ford-class supercarrier to the Asia-Pacific,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.

“The US is deliberately going to remind China that the generation gap between PLA navy and the US carrier strike groups as well as their fighting capabilities will be further enlarged when the carrier Gerald R. Ford is commissioned this year.”

The 100,000-tonne nuclear-powered US carrier is almost twice the size of the Type 001A carrier. The giant ship is powered by two advanced nuclear reactors, and equipped with electromagnetic aircraft launching system, even though its recovery device was changed to cable arresting gears for safety consideration.

The conventional powered Type 001A retains the ski-jump take-off ramp of the Liaoning, and when China’s next generation aircraft carrier, the Type 002, is launched around 2021, it will not be nuclear-powered vessel with electromagnetic aircraft catapults, according to Li.

The Type 002 carrier would most likely retain standard steam-driven catapults because “it’s impossible to develop a completely new generation carrier in just a few years”, said Li, who published a book about the Ford-class carrier this month.

“To some extent, we should recognise that the technological gap in key aircraft carrier technologies between China and the US is widening, and there is no sign of it narrowing.”

The Ford-class carrier was launched in November 2013, and expected to be commissioned this year. But Washington has not announced where it will be stationed.

By Minnie Chan



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