The carrier is in the center of intense interest among military observers and rival nations monitoring the development of China’s navy. It is also an important milestone in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s longstanding drive to modernize the country’s army and reduce dependence on foreign military suppliers.
The first two Chinese carriers include an upgrade of an old Soviet model, the Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine in 1998, and Shandong, which was built in China but based on the Liaoning model and commissioned in 2019.
Fujian is a big step forward in technology and capabilities, analysts say.
In particular, it is the first Chinese carrier to be equipped with an electromagnetic catapult to launch 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 that uses a slight incline in the cockpit to lift, but limits the size and weight of the aircraft.
“This is where this new catapult comes into play. You’re essentially launching a slingshot into the air, “said Matthew Funayole, senior director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, which has been closely studying Fujian’s satellite imagery since hints of its construction in 2018.
He said this could allow China to launch a “bigger, more diverse, healthier” fleet once it sails. “What we suspect is that we will see things like surveillance planes that cannot take off before from existing carriers. He said he expects the new carrier is also likely to help with further tests of unmanned aerial vehicles found on existing Chinese carriers.
U.S. aircraft carriers have previously used a steam version of the catapult developed decades ago, but in the past five years, newer carriers have adopted an electromagnetic launch system similar to that seen by Fujian.
“The great thing about China is that they seem to have completely jumped off the steam and moved directly to the (electromagnetic style) launch system. “If their system works, which remains to be seen, it’s a very significant leap in technology,” Funayole said.
While Chinese military analysts and bloggers hailed the carrier as the “Chinese response to the USS Gerald R. Ford,” launched in 2017, much of its capabilities are still unknown. Ford was the largest and most modern carrier in the world when it was built.
“There is very little information about Fujian and, in this regard, about the PLA Navy’s carrier program. The exact capabilities and their presentation are shrouded in secrecy, “said Colin Co., an expert on the People’s Liberation Army fleet at the Rajarathan 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 cockpit and install technology, as well as train staff and pilots. The ship will then probably have to go through months of sea trials before it can be put into service.
The unveiling of China’s most modern 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 opening of the naval facility in Cambodia expressed further concerns about reaching Beijing in the Gulf of Thailand and the South Pacific.
The carrier is also an important victory for Xi in the domestic market on the eve of China’s National People’s Congress later this year, when he is expected to take up his third term.
“It is difficult to express how important this prestige and image is for China; it is a story of regaining China’s former glory, emerging on the world stage, becoming a regional power and then a global power, “Funayole said.
In China – where the dates of major events are often chosen for their symbolism – state media reported that the Fujian launch coincided with the 55th anniversary of China’s first successful hydrogen bomb test and the first anniversary of China’s Shenzhou 12 manned space mission.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.