A local government inadvertently confirmed that China is building a second aircraft carrier on Sunday, sparking a wave of media analysis of China’s maritime ambitions. According to Reuters, the government of Changzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, posted on its microblog that a Changzhou-based power cable manufacturer had been awarded a deal to supply products for China’s new carrier. The reports were also carried by a local newspaper before being scrubbed.
China currently operates one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, the pride of China’s navy (which last year was even the subject of musical paeans). Yet the Liaoning was not domestically produced – the carrier is a refitted version of Ukraine’s Varyag, as South China Morning Post described in great detail in a recent series. The goal all along has been for China to use the Liaoning as a training platform, a stepping stone to the production and use of Chinese-made aircraft carriers.
Thus, while the Chinese government tightly restricts any discussion of new carriers, it’s a foregone conclusion that they are being built. Last January, the Party chief of Liaoning province let slip that China had already begun building its second carrier in Dalian. The official added that China ultimately planned to build four aircraft carriers, with the first new carrier expected to be ready by 2020. As with the recent reports from Changzhou, this story (originally run by Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao newspaper, was quickly removed.
While Beijing has been typically tight-lipped about its plans for new carriers, all indications are that construction is underway, although varying reports provide different specifics about how many carriers will be produced and when we can expect them to hit the high seas. A December 2014 article from Global Times nicely sums up the conflicting reports on China’s new aircraft carrier fleet — estimates of the total number range from two to four additional carriers. The GT piece also points out that China will need to construct not only the carriers themselves but full carrier battle groups. “China is manufacturing large numbers of 052D type destroyers and 054A type frigates to train alongside the Liaoning, so that once future carriers are commissioned, escorts will be readily available,” Global Times reports.
Construction on these new ships, including rumors of new aircraft carriers, comes as China is ramping up its maritime ambitions. Chinese vessels have been venturing farther and farther afield, both for overseas missions (notably anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden) and for port calls as part of China’s burgeoning military diplomacy. In addition, Chinese companies are investing heavily in ports from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, including the African coast, as part of the new Maritime Silk Road. While there’s much debate over whether these commercial ports are also intended for eventual use by the PLA Navy, China will doubtless seek to project naval power into these regions are its trading interests grow — particularly given that the Maritime Silk Road as currently envisioned traverses some dangerous waters near the Somali coast.
Additional aircraft carriers provide a means of power projection that many in Beijing believe is only natural for a state of China’s economic and political importance. As a recent Global Times piece put it: “According to international practices, a big power needs at least three aircraft carriers to be used for duty service, training and maintenance… China is now the world’s second-largest economy, but its only flattop is a training ship rebuilt from an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier that was commissioned into the Chinese navy on September 25, 2012. This is no match to the country’s economic strength.”
For practical as well as psychological reasons, it’s only a matter of time until we see China’s first domestically-produced aircraft carrier. And it’s a good bet that China will want at least one (if not all) of these new carriers ready in time for 2020 — by which time the Party plans to have completed a national transition to a “moderately prosperous society” (just in time for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the CCP in 2021).