China’s first homemade aircraft carrier was officially commissioned by President Xi Jinping in Sanya on Tuesday after several setbacks and technical issues.
Viewed as a milestone for the China’s modern military expansion, Beijing flexed its strength with the display of the new ship, called the Shandong, the South China Morning Post reported. Now with two active aircraft carriers, China is halfway to reaching its goal of four active aircraft carriers.
Beijing chose to hold the commencing ceremony in Sanya, to highlight the strategical importance of the location, said Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator for Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, told the SCMP he expects the Shandong to be stationed in Sanya.
“The South China Sea offers ample scope for Chinese aircraft carriers to show their capabilities. It is also the area where the [People’s Liberation Army] PLA needs to prepare for military struggles,” he said.
While the Shandong, previously called the Type 001A, finished sea trials in October after it experienced “technical problems” in August, it was originally planned on being officially commissioned in April 2019.
The Chinese military made changes to its plans for future aircraft carriers. Previously, the plan was to have six, but now they plan to have four. Currently, the Shandong and the Liaoning are China’s only active aircraft carriers.
“There is no plan to build more aircraft carriers,” a military source reportedly told the South China Morning Post. “The third and fourth Chinese aircraft carriers on the agenda are both Type 002s, the country’s next generation warship equipped with electromagnetic catapults [for launching jets].”
Experts cite China’s technical limitations as the reason behind this, as the other two were planned on being nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
“China doesn’t possess the nuclear technology required, although it has developed many nuclear-powered submarines,” another source told the SCMP.
Those technical challenges of the Shandong raised costs and ended plans of developing the two nuclear aircraft carriers.
“[The engineers] have found some technical problems, and one of the key obstacles is in the development of a new generation of carrier-based fighter jets,” the source reportedly added. “These problems are not expected to be resolved in the near term.”
China has four other inactive aircraft carriers it uses for study, three are from the former Soviet Union and one is from Australia.
Song also said China gained a lot of valuable experience with the Liaoning, a refitted former Soviet Union-era vessel, that helped the country build the Shandong, according to the SCMP.
Wang Yunfei, a retired PLA destroyer naval officer, has stated that when China finishes the other two carriers, two of them will be to the north, two to the east and two to the south.
“China’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with [EMALS-like systems] are expected to join the navy by 2035,” he said. “The country needs to keep developing until it is at the same level as the United States.”
The United States has 20 active aircraft carriers, 11 of which are nuclear-powered.