The aircraft carrier has attracted keen interest among military observers and rival nations who follow the development of the Chinese navy. It is also a milestone in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s multi-year campaign to modernize the country’s military and reduce its dependence on foreign military suppliers.
China’s first two carriers include a modernization of an older Soviet model, the Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine in 1998, and the Shandong, which was built in China but based on the Liaoning model and entered service in 2019.
The Fujian represents a big leap forward in technology and capabilities, analysts say.
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It is notably the first Chinese aircraft carrier to be equipped with an electromagnetic catapult for launching aircraft, which means that the Chinese military will be able to launch a wider range of heavier aircraft. Older carriers rely on a “ski jump” configuration which uses a slight tilt in the cockpit to provide lift, but limits the size and weight of the aircraft.
“That’s where this new catapult comes in. You’re basically launching the plane into the air,” said Matthew Funaiole, senior director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, which has closely studied the satellite imagery of Fujian since hints of its construction emerged in 2018.
He said it could allow China to launch a “larger, more diverse and more robust” fleet once it sets sail. “What we suspect is that we’ll see things like surveillance planes that couldn’t take off from existing carriers before. He said he expects the new carrier to also contribute to other unmanned aerial vehicle tests detected on existing carriers in China.
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 the electromagnetic launch system similar to Fujian’s.
“The big problem for China is that they seem to have completely jumped off steam and gone straight to a (electromagnetic type) launch system. If their system works, which remains to be seen, it’s a matter of of a very significant technological leap,” said Funaiole.
While Chinese military analysts and bloggers have hailed the carrier as “China’s answer to the USS Gerald R. Ford,” commissioned in 2017, much of its capabilities are still unknown. The Ford was the largest and most advanced transporter in the world when it was built.
“There is extremely little information coming out of Fujian and, for that matter, the PLA Navy’s aircraft carrier program. The exact capabilities and their performance are shrouded in a lot of secrecy,” Collin Koh said. , a People’s Liberation Army Navy expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Analysts say the carrier won’t be completed for at least two years, depending on how long it takes to complete its flight deck and install technology as well as train personnel and pilots. The ship will then probably have to undergo months of sea trials before entering service.
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The unveiling of China’s most advanced carrier comes amid heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, where China and its neighbors have competing territorial claims. The recent signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands and the inauguration of a naval facility in Cambodia have raised new concerns about Beijing’s reach in the Gulf of Thailand and the South Pacific.
The unveiling of the carrier is also an important victory for Xi domestically ahead of China’s National People’s Congress later this year, when he is expected to begin his third term.
“It is difficult to express how important prestige and image are for China; it’s this story of reclaiming China’s former glory, reemerging on the world stage, transforming into a regional and then global power,” Funaiole said.
In China – where the dates of major events are often chosen for their symbolism – state media pointed out that the Fujian launch coincided with the 55th anniversary of the first successful test of the hydrogen bomb in China and the first anniversary of the Chinese manned space mission Shenzhou 12.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.
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