(Bloomberg) — China launched its third and most modern aircraft carrier, a watershed moment for President Xi Jinping’s efforts to modernize the armed forces and narrow his country’s military gap with the US.
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The new carrier, christened the Fujian, was launched from Jiangnan Shipyard near Shanghai on Friday at ceremony attended by military and civilian leaders, state broadcaster China Central Television said. The ship has an electromagnet catapult launch system — a feature previously deployed by only the US — rather than the “ski jump” deck of China’s two earlier carriers, CCTV said.
While the Fujian will more closely resemble the newest US carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, it will likely fall short of Nimitz-or Ford-class nuclear-powered supercarriers in capabilities and range. The Chinese warship is expected to have a diesel engine and likely to be comparable in size to the US Kitty Hawk-class carriers, which the US operated from the 1960s to 2000s.
Xi, since taking office, has pledged to modernize China’s once infantry-dominated military with particular focus on building the navy to project power beyond the nation’s coasts and protect increasingly far-flung interests including its expansive and disputed claims in the South China Sea. The new carrier would likely extend the People’s Liberation Army’s effective range beyond the so-called First Island Chain, which includes Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan.
The PLA released a six minute and 17 second propaganda video — a reference to the ship’s June 17 launch date — commemorating the development of China’s carrier program over the past decade. The video is dedicated to the Communist Party’s upcoming congress, in which Xi is expected to reshuffle top posts and secure a precedent-breaking third term as commander-in-chief.
“Offense is our mission,” the video’s narrator said.
The Fujian, which was previously known as the Type 003, will displace about 80,000 tons, according to CCTV, compared with about 100,000 tons for the Nimitz and Ford carriers. The shipyard working on the new carrier is operated by Jiangnan Shipbuilding Group, a subsidiary of China State Shipbuilding Corp., the world’s largest commercial shipbuilder.
The Fujian’s launch is thought to have been postponed twice. Initially, the launch data was scheduled for April 23, but the PLA Navy delayed the date amid logistical problems arising from the country’s surge in Covid cases and lockdown in Shanghai. The second launch date was thought for June 3, to coincide with China’s Dragon Boat Festival, but it’s unclear why takeoff never happened.
Once the warship set sail, it would need five years to reach initial operational capabilities to thoroughly test all of its satellite communications, drainage system and other equipment on board, Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post.
The launch comes as the Chinese military has been taking increasingly assertive actions in Asia. Earlier this month, both Australia and Canada reported close encounters with Chinese military jets. China denied these claims, saying “no country is allowed to infringe upon China’s sovereignty and security.”
(Adds details of military’s capabilities, previously posponed launches from fourth paragraph.)
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