China has made excellent progress developing its second aircraft carrier, and Chinese state-run media says it could start patrolling the South China Sea by 2019.
The South China Morning Post, based on a scan of Chinese state media reports, states that the carrier was “taking shape.”
“It will be used to tackle the complicated situations in the South China Sea,” said Chinese media.
The “complicated situation” the media report referred to stems from Beijing’s claims to about 85% of the South China Sea, which sees $5 trillion in trade annually. China has developed a network of artificially built, militarized islands in the region, and at times has unilaterally declared “no fly” or “no sail” zones.
In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration ruled these claims illegal, and the Trump administration has promised to put a stop to China’s aggressive, unlawful behavior.
But that’s easier said than done, and a designated aircraft carrier in the region could help cement China’s claims.
China’s second carrier, likely to be named the “Shangdong” after a Chinese port city, will resemble the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, which itself is a refurbished Soviet model.
China’s carriers, like Russia’s sole carrier the Admiral Kuznetzov, feature a ski-slope design. US models, on the other hand, use catapults, or devices that forcefully launch the planes off the ship. Ski-slope style carriers can’t launch the heavy bomb-and-fuel-laden planes that US carriers can, so their efficacy and range are severely limited.
But Taylor Mavin, a UC San Diego graduate student in international affairs, notes for Smoke and Stir that these smaller, Soviet-designed carriers were built with the idea of coastal defense, not seaborne power projection, being the main goal:
“Since a major confrontation between NATO and Warsaw Pact would most likely take place in Europe, during the later Cold War Soviet planners focused on protecting the heavily defended ‘bastions’ shielding their ballistic missile submarines and not seaborne power projection.
China’s navy has undergone rapid modernization in the last few years with particular emphasis on fielding submarines. So while a Chinese carrier couldn’t travel to say, Libya, and project power like a US carrier could, it might just be custom made for the South China Sea.
But don’t expect the world’s most populous nation to stop at two carriers. A recent report from Defense News states that satellite imagery from China shows the nation developing catapults to possibly field on a US-style carrier.
Taken in concert with China’s other efforts to create anti-access/area-denial technology like extremely long-range missiles, the US will have to have its work cut out for it in trying to offer any meaningful counter to China’s expansionism in the Pacific.