China has proved it can build warships. It faces another challenge if it wants to catch up with the US.

Liaoning China Aircraft Carrier
The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, sails into Hong Kong for port call, July 7, 2017.

  • As the People’s Liberation Army Navy expands its fleet, maintaining the right numbers of ships is a vital consideration strategically and to control cost.
  • Beijing plans further aircraft carrier strike groups, so it needs numbers of aircraft carriers and submarines to keep pace with those of surface warships.
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As China plans to add more mini-aircraft carriers and assemble at least six carrier strike groups by 2035, it faces the vital task of maintaining the right number of each type of ship.

The Chinese navy has undergone considerable expansion, with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimating that it will receive nearly 100 new ships by 2030 to give it a total of about 425 battle-force ships.

Part of the motivation is to catch up with the United States, which has 11 aircraft carriers, outnumbering China by nine, and more than a dozen amphibious assault ships to support its global strategy.

But a military source and observers said Beijing’s strategy would be not just a matter of the number of ships, but ensuring the fleet combinations were well balanced, to avoid bearing a hugely costly fleet.

Type 075 (rendering)
A rendering of China’s Type 075 amphibious assault ship.

China has commissioned its first Type 075 amphibious assault ship, which sources said would be used as a mini-aircraft carrier.

Previous reports said new naval vessels would include four next-generation aircraft carriers, an unspecified number of next-generation nuclear-powered attack and strategic submarines, as well as the amphibious assault ships and upgraded Type 076 platforms with electromagnetic catapults for fixed-wing aircraft operations – making them more like aircraft carriers.

That is in addition to the six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, raising concerns over whether China will adopt a global strategy like that of the US and even the former Soviet Union, which during the Cold War planned to build more than 200 nuclear submarines to counter the US’ aircraft carriers.

But a military source told the South China Morning Post that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would not follow those templates, and was simply assessing which numbers of surface ships and nuclear submarines would suffice to defend national interests at home and overseas.

“China now has enough conventional surface warships, like the cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes, but the numbers of [nuclear-powered] aircraft carriers and submarines need to be increased,” the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said.

A Chinese Type 055 destroyer
A Chinese Type 055 destroyer.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the task of building a well-balanced fleet was the toughest for all the big powers.

He said one of the reasons for the collapse of the former Soviet Union was its costly nuclear submarine strategy.

“It’s impossible for the PLAN to copy the US navy’s aircraft carrier strategy, too. The US has several huge naval bases in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Guam base, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and the 7th fleet’s headquarters in Japan’s Yokosuka, enabling it to form several containment arcs to contain a rising China,” Wong said, referring to the so-called island chain strategies that targeted the communist alliance led by the former Soviet Union in Asia during the Cold War.

“Unlike other surface warships, both aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines need specific and dedicated ports for logistic support and maintenance when sailing farther from home waters, but so far China just built its first and only military outpost, in Djibouti [on the Horn of Africa].”

Wong said Beijing had been planning to set up overseas military outposts in Myanmar, Pakistan and other Beijing-friendly African countries since the mid-1990s when China became a net oil importer, but progress was limited almost two decades later.

“Besides ‘China threat’ theory, the Chinese foreign ministry’s Wolf Warrior diplomatic policy should also be blamed, causing many countries to remain suspicious about the ambitions behind Beijing’s naval expansion,” he said.

chinese submarine
Chinese sailors salute on a submarine during a joint Chinese-Russian naval exercise in the Yellow Sea, April 26, 2012.

In an effort to become a real blue-water navy, Beijing adjusted its military policy in 2015, placing more stress on active offshore water defence and open-seas protection.

“In the foreseeable future, both active offshore defence and far-seas protection would carry similar strategic weight in importance, ” Collin Koh, a maritime security analyst with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said. “This is surely enabled by growing the PLAN’s blue-water capabilities, not least a more robust aircraft carrier capacity.”

In current peacetime, Koh said, the PLAN might be able to secure continued access to facilities in Beijing-friendly Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, or even Iran, as well as some other Middle East and East African countries via economic investments, but that would be unsustainable in wartime.

The PLAN has two active conventional aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. A third, with electromagnetic catapults, is expected to be launched this year.

The most likely contingency for the PLA would be a war over Taiwan, given that Beijing sees the self-ruled island as a breakaway province to be returned by force if necessary. All the giant platforms and the expected near-dozen amphibious assault ships would be expected to take part in any potential conflict over Taiwan.

“We can see both Liaoning and Shandong ships are used as training and ship-borne weapon systems testing platforms, indicating they are still operating like the Soviet aircraft cruisers during World War II,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.

“The PLAN’s aircraft carriers can’t compete with the offensive USS Nimitz-class aircraft platforms … of course, Beijing’s future defence policy will be clear when the mainland discloses details of the third next-generation carrier.”

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US Navy sends message to China with photo of destroyer shadowing Chinese aircraft carrier

Liaoning China Aircraft Carrier
The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, sails into Hong Kong for a port call, July 7, 2017.

  • A photo of US Navy destroyer USS Mustin shadowing Chinese warships has been described as a form of “cognitive warfare.”
  • China and the US are both building up their forces in the East and South China seas by sending carriers and escorts to the region.
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The United States military has engaged in a form of “cognitive warfare” following the latest encounter between its warships and the Chinese navy.

Both countries have deployed aircraft carrier strike groups to the East and South China seas, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Liaoning, respectively.

On Sunday, the US released a photo that showed one of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Mustin, shadowing the Liaoning group – a move that analysts said was designed to send a clear message to the Chinese.

The photo taken on Monday somewhere in the East China Sea showed the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Robert J Briggs, and his deputy, Cmdr. Richard D Slye, watching the Liaoning, which was just a few thousand metres away.

“In the photo, Cmdr. Briggs looks very relaxed with his feet up watching the Liaoning ship just a few thousand yards away, while his deputy is also sitting beside him, showing they take their PLA counterparts lightly,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.

“This staged photograph is definitely ‘cognitive warfare’ to show the US doesn’t regard the PLA as an immediate threat.”

Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang think tank, a Beijing-based military science and technology institute, said the photo indicated that the US warship kept a “very safe distance” while shadowing the Liaoning.

“Both sides understand that there is a big gap between the US and Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups,” Zhou said.

Navy destroyer Mustin China aircraft carrier
Cmdr. Robert J. Briggs and Cmdr. Richard D. Slye monitor Chinese ships aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin, in the Philippine Sea, April 4, 2021.

Andrei Chang, the editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, said the photo was a “warning to the PLA” that the US was thoroughly informed about the Liaoning strike group.

The Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said the US military had increased the deployment of aircraft and warships to the East and South China seas.

It also said the USS Mustin had been sent to waters near the mouth of the Yangtze River on April 3, and since last Sunday has been following the Liaoning group through the East and South China Seas.

The Liaoning aircraft carrier group also includes the Nanchang, one of China’s most advanced Type 055 destroyers, two other destroyers, a frigate and a support ship.

The Japanese defence ministry is also reported to have sent the destroyer JS Suzutsuki and two patrol aircraft to monitor the strike group as it passed between Okinawa and Miyako Island on Sunday.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd had a phone conversation with his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana to reaffirm their shared commitment to their alliance after Chinese vessels massed at a disputed reef, according to the Pentagon.

China has described the presence of the 200 vessels near Whitsun Reef as “normal and legitimate” and said officials are maintaining close communications with the Philippines.

But the Philippines has described the vessels as a maritime militia and last week the broadcaster ABS-CBN claimed two Chinese vessels armed with missiles drove away the ship carrying its news crew near the island province of Palawan. The broadcaster said it was the first recorded instance of a military manoeuvre against a civilian boat.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the report indicated that the PLA had deployed Type 022 missile boats to Mischief Reef, one of the seven artificial islands Beijing has reclaimed in the disputed Spratly Islands, which are just 250km (155 miles) from Palawan.

“The massing of China’s maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef implies that Beijing may attempt to resume its land reclamation project in the Spratly Islands because of the geostrategic location of Whitsun Reef, which is located between Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef,” Wong said.

“China realised Mischief is too far away from the mainland and too isolated in the Spratlys, but land expansion based around Whitsun Reef will solve the problem.”

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China is looking for ‘a significant breakthrough’ by making its next aircraft carrier nuclear-powered

Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier
Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier.

  • “Shipbuilders and ship propulsion engineers are keen on making a significant breakthrough” with China’s fourth aircraft carrier, a person close to the Chinese Navy said.
  • But pursuing a nuclear power system for the next carrier would be a “bold decision that is full of challenges,” a second source said.
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China’s next aircraft carrier is likely to be nuclear powered, according to two people close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

After a two-year delay because of technical problems, construction work on the vessel resumed earlier this year, the South China Morning Post reported in January, citing a military source.

“Shipbuilders and ship propulsion engineers are keen on making a significant breakthrough with the construction of the fourth carrier,” a source close to the Chinese navy said on condition of anonymity.

“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry … but construction may take longer than for its sister ship due to the different propulsion systems.”

China already has two operational aircraft carriers and a third – to which the source was referring – is expected to be launched this year. None are nuclear powered.

China aircraft carrier type 001a
Aircraft carrier Type 001A, called Shandong, is China’s first domestically built carrier.

A second source, who also asked not to be identified, said the Central Military Commission was studying a proposal by China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) to use nuclear power for the fourth carrier.

He declined to say whether a decision had been made, but said it would be a “very bold decision that is full of challenges.”

The CSSC said in February 2018 it had started developing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would help the PLA Navy to “realise its strategic transformation and combat-readiness capability in deep waters and open oceans by 2025.”

In 2019, China General Nuclear Power Group invited bids for a contract to build a 30,000-tonne nuclear-powered ship, which it described as an “experimental platform.”

The first source said the “experimental platform” was intended as a way to test the nuclear reactors that would later be installed on aircraft carriers.

Notices released by the PLA last year showed it had bought a series of reports on how to build a nuclear propulsion system. The PLA has more than a dozen nuclear-powered submarines, including the Type 091, Type 093 and Type 095.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said a nuclear power system would not only enable the aircraft carriers’ electromagnetic catapult systems to operate more smoothly but also support high-energy weapons like laser and rail guns.

“Also, the control tower island on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is much smaller than a conventionally powered platform so it frees up more space for aircraft,” he said.

It is not known how big China’s fourth aircraft carrier will be, but its third has a displacement of about 85,000 tonnes.

The Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, departs Hong Kong
Liaoning departs Hong Kong.

Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy, said if the PLA decided to use nuclear power for its fourth aircraft carrier, it was possible the CSSC might in the future convert the steam turbines on its conventionally powered sister ship into nuclear reactors.

The PLA did something similar with the Liaoning – its first aircraft carrier, which was based on an unfinished Soviet vessel that China bought from Ukraine in 1998 – after seeing how new technologies worked on the country’s first domestically developed carrier, the Shandong, Lu said.

The Liaoning, which joined the PLA Navy in 2012, underwent a lengthy retrofit between late 2018 and early 2019.

Images released online by the CSSC showed that the design and size of the control tower on the third carrier is similar to the one on the Liaoning and Shandong, which Li said was the “normal design” for a conventionally powered vessel.

“Conventionally powered carriers need a bigger control tower because of the need for chimneys for the emissions,” he said.

Other reports published online said China’s third aircraft carrier would be launched by July 1, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

But Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Beijing-based military think tank Yuan Wang, said that was unlikely as “quality assurance is always the top priority” on carrier projects.

“Weapon systems are built for combat, not to celebrate special days,” he said.

China’s navy said earlier it planned to launch at least six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, in a bid to match the naval strength of the United States in the Pacific region.

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