New commercial satellite photos published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington show what is almost certainly the early stages of construction of China’s third aircraft carrier.
This new vessel will be a major leap in capability compared to the two ships the Chinese navy has sailed so far—and it represents the evolution of Chinese carrier aviation from an adapted Soviet model to a Western-style fleet, one that speaks to China’s ambition to be the leading strategic power in Asia.
Like many facets of China’s modernization, its carrier program is a process of copying, adaptation, and innovation. The copying part came first. China bought the Varyag, a half-finished Soviet-era vessel from the Ukraine—little more than rusting hulk, really—and built a respectable midsize ship, the Liaoning, which is now evolving from a training vessel to one with some operational capabilities. China got the blueprints for the ship from the Ukraine, too, but it didn’t just finish the ship as the old Soviet Navy intended—it adapted and innovated.
Soviet carriers of the late 1980s were not built for the same purpose as U.S. carriers, gigantic floating airfields that allow power to be pushed far overseas. They were constructed with an entirely different operational concept in mind: protecting the near seas against foreign aircraft and surface ships. Soviet ships were smaller and armed with a battery of huge long-range anti-ship missiles under the flight deck. They were cruisers with a couple dozen fighter aircraft on board rather than true U.S.-style super carriers.
One of the first things China’s naval engineers did with their ex-Soviet vessel was to remove the missile battery. So it was clear from the outset that the Chinese navy had a different purpose in mind for the refurbished vessel, not the primarily defensive Soviet model. Removing those missiles meant the refurbished ship would be devoted purely to operating aircraft and would be the centerpiece of the Chinese navy’s ambitions to operate far from shore.
Yet that ambition remains hampered by the limitations of the Soviet-era design, which features a so-called ski jump ramp at the bow of the ship that gives aircraft the extra lift they need to take off from a very short runway. It’s a foolproof system, as it has no moving parts, but it puts big limits on the size of aircraft that can take off from the ship and the amount of fuel and weapons they can carry. That means critical support tasks such as airborne early warning and supply delivery have to be performed by helicopters, which are slower and have less range and endurance.
That distinctive ski jump design was carried over to China’s second carrier, launched last year and now undergoing sea trials. But it is highly likely that the carrier now under construction will abandon that crude system for something more sophisticated and capable. We know from satellite photos that China is working on two different kinds of catapult launch technology, which can fling even large and heavy aircraft off a ship at high speed. One is a steam catapult, used on the current generation of U.S. carriers, and the other is an electromagnetic version, which the United States is now struggling to perfect on its latest carrier, the USS Gerald Ford.
It’s not yet known which of these two systems will appear on the new carrier, but either way, the use of catapults will make this new ship far more combat-capable than its two predecessors. And it won’t be the end of the evolutionary process: China is likely to develop a stealth fighter for its carrier fleet in a similar class to the F-35—an airborne early warning plane that, judging by the drawings and mock-ups seen thus far, will look remarkably similar to the U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye (more copying and adaptation)—and eventually a nuclear-powered carrier.
So if China is intent on building a U.S.-style carrier fleet, does that mean China has similar ambitions for its military and for its foreign policy? Does China want to become a global strategic power with allies, bases, and security responsibilities around the world?
Blue Water Dreams
China’s third carrier will eventually place it among the top end of fleets worldwide—but everyone else is a minnow compared to the U.S. whale.
Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping is certainly much more ambitious than his predecessors. Government messaging increasingly emphasizes the idea that China’s development can be a model for the world. Chinese military leaders have also begun talking openly about developing a network of foreign bases to support distant deployments; the single foreign base China currently boasts in Djibouti may be just the beginning.
But that doesn’t mean China’s ambition will match America’s. In fact, Washington should probably hope that Beijing’s ambitions reach that far, because global responsibilities would require China to maintain global capabilities. Unfortunately for the United States, that doesn’t look like it is happening. Despite China’s greater willingness to regularly deploy its navy as far away as the coast of Somalia (for anti-piracy missions), the Chinese navy remains overwhelmingly an Asia-Pacific force. That’s bad news for the United States, because China can therefore concentrate its considerable resources almost exclusively in its own region, where the United States, has been the unchallenged strategic leader since the end of the Cold War.
That period is drawing to a close. China sees itself as a great power and it wants the military resources and recognition to match. It will not be content to play second fiddle to the United States in its own region, and it has the resources to challenge American primacy. While outsiders marvel at the pace and scale of China’s maritime modernization—not just aircraft carriers but cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and auxiliaries being turned out in a manner reminiscent of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s build-up—we should remember that China is spending only about 2 percent of its GDP on defense.
China has plenty of serious economic problems, but the United States should not pin its hopes on the idea that military spending will distort and ultimately undermine the Chinese economy the way it did in the Soviet Union. Instead, Washington should expect a struggle for regional leadership with an opponent that, with the exception of its nuclear forces, will be more formidable than the Soviet Union ever was. The big question hanging over Asian geopolitics is whether the United States really wants to compete. Former President Barack Obama’s underwhelming pivot fed Asian doubts, and President Donald Trump’s complaints about defending allies that are “rich as hell” and probably don’t like the United States much won’t help.
China’s growing carrier fleet embodies Beijing’s ambitions and resources, and it is a signal to its region that China is every bit as big and important as the United States. This is the final and critical lesson to be drawn from the aircraft carrier program: It is ultimately aimed at China’s Asian neighbors, not at the United States. China is not building this fleet so that it can defeat the United States in a Midway-style showdown; carriers are far too vulnerable to modern anti-ship missiles to play that kind of role anymore.
As the United States has learned since the end of the Cold War, aircraft carriers are useful to project force against small countries that cannot threaten them at sea. For China, then, the carrier fleet is for now a symbol of its ambition, but it will truly come into its own when, as Beijing anticipates, the United States decides it is no longer willing to protect its Asian friends and allies.