China's first domestically built aircraft carrier is the latest sign that the world's second-largest economy is developing a unified carrier program to secure its interests in nearby and international waters.
The new vessel, which doesn't yet have an official name but goes by "Type 001A," is widely expected to undergo its first sea trials soon. It is Beijing's second aircraft carrier and the first to be constructed entirely from scratch. The Liaoning, the country's first, is a former Soviet hull that was built in Ukraine and later refitted by the Chinese.
"The Type 001A is a major milestone for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)," researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said in a note this week. "China is working toward incrementally matching some of the best carrier technology in the world, and the Type 001A is a big step in ... that direction."
The new ship is anticipated to be delivered to China's navy by the end of the year, but it could be a few more years until it's ready to be used.
The Type 001A isn't considered a major technological breakthrough in itself. It shares similar capabilities as the Liaoning, including comparable propulsion systems and ski jump-style launches for aircraft takeoff and landing. The latter is considered more fuel-intensive and less efficient than the steam catapults used by the U.S. Navy.
"It would not be a surprise if China fields up to four carrier battle groups by 2030" -Center for Strategic and International Studies
What makes the Type 001A significant is the fact that "it's a part of Beijing's efforts to build a coherent carrier battle group," said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow specializing in maritime security at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
The country's goal is for the Type 001A and Liaoning to sail with accompanying warships and frigates to fight as a coherent unit, Koh explained. China's navy is also building a destroyer known as "Type 055" that's meant to rival the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class and provide air defense for the Type 001A, he stated.
"Carrier operations will play an important role in Beijing's strategy of fulfilling its interests," Koh continued, adding that it's possible for carrier groups to be deployed in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and further out to China's naval base in Djibouti.
That naval presence could be problematic for certain Asian countries.
The communist state's island-building activities and military exercises in the South China Sea, where its territorial claims extend roughly 1,000 miles from the nation's southern shores, have unnerved some Southeast Asian countries that also claim parts of the waterway.
Meanwhile, Beijing's network of defense and commercial facilities in countries along the Indian Ocean, India's traditional backyard, has raised alarm in New Delhi.
Chinese naval forces recently conducted a series of drills in waters near Taiwan — actions that Taipei described as "saber-rattling" and "intimidation."
There is "a concerted push to develop an aircraft carrier program that can be used to secure Chinese interests both close to home and, in time, to project power further afield," the CSIS analysts said.
Given the country's current pace of advancing carrier capabilities, "it would not be a surprise if China fields up to four carrier battle groups by 2030," they added.
But seeing as the country is new to the carrier game, it will likely face multiple challenges in fielding a corps of trained pilots, operators and technicians, the researchers continued.
"Given the importance that Beijing has placed on building a successful fleet and avoiding accidents, it may also want to progress cautiously to minimize risk as it integrates the Type 001A into the PLAN," they concluded.