The deployment this year of a second aircraft carrier and construction of a third will allow China to position one of the carriers in the contested South China Sea, maritime policy experts believe.
A carrier known only as Type 001 has been tested in China for formal use by September. Another is being built for a launch in 2022, the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a May 7 research note.
China is likely to base one carrier in the South China Sea, position one in the East China Sea, and let the third travel the world, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
“I don’t think that they will actually go attack people, but of course just the show of force is quite impressive,” he said.
China has the world’s third-strongest armed forces. It has more overall firepower than five other countries that compete for sovereignty in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea. The others are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The U.S. Navy has passed ships though the sea 10 times under U.S. President Donald Trump as a warning to China to share the waterway. Beijing calls the U.S. passages violations of Chinese sovereignty.
China, through its aircraft carrier program, wants to improve air-to-air capabilities so it can “head off” any third party that gets too close, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan.
“I think basically it will be East China Sea and South China Sea, because they are enhancing their power projection and so-called the active defense strategy through the first-island chain,” he said.
The first-island chain usually refers to Japan, Taiwan and major Southeast Asian archipelagos.
China and Japan contest part of the East China Sea. Beijing also claims sovereignty over Taiwan, which lies about 160 kilometers away from the mainland and also has a stake in the East China Sea. The self-ruled island is building up its own forces to resist China. Last week it broke ground on a shipyard to develop its first diesel-electric submarine.
Second and third Chinese carriers
The first Chinese carrier, a former Soviet vessel, began plying the seas near China’s east coast in 2012 under its new name, the Liaoning. Built in 2017, the Type 001 vessel started trials last year.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in November that shipbuilders had kicked off work on the “new generation” third carrier. Other Chinese media say the third carrier may be bigger and stronger than the previous two.
CSIS' China Power Project has collected satellite images over a Shanghai shipyard, which shows a bow and main hull section of a “large vessel.” It calls the carrier Type 002.
“Chinese weapons enthusiasts and foreign observers have long asserted that China has begun to build its third carrier at China State Shipbuilding Corp.’s Jiangnan Shipyard Group in Shanghai, speculating that it will be bigger and mightier than the Liaoning and the second carrier,” the state-run China Daily news website said in November.
Chinese carrier technology still needs “a lot of improvements” in terms of technology and handling carrier-based fighter jets, Yang said.
Chilling effect offshore
But a carrier fleet of any kind, especially with planes parked on the mothership, would alarm the other countries, the experts say.
China would see its carrier in the South China Sea as a “counterbalance” against the U.S. Navy ships that pass off the west coast of Taiwan near the same sea, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. Normally, the Chinese “flex” their muscle after the U.S. makes a move, he said.
A U.S. aircraft carrier, if sent to the South China Sea as well, could easily end up facing off against the Chinese vessel, Singapore Institute of International Affairs' Oh said.
Other Asian countries with claims – about 90% of the entire sea -- will probably do little if a Chinese carrier stays low key, Araral said. That could mean sticking to undisputed South China Sea tracts near the Chinese coastal province of Hainan, he added.
“Reaction would come when the aircraft carrier would be patrolling regularly and along (with) a fleet of other vessels,” he said. “Then it’s going to rattle the nerves in the neighborhood, because they would be misreading what this is.”
Sending a carrier to the South China Sea would “compel” other Asian maritime claimants to seek U.S. government help, solidifying a Western-allied, “anti-Chinese alliance” of countries, said Fabrizio Bozzato, a Taiwan Strategy Research Association fellow.
Those allies might in turn send “massive naval forces” including their own carriers to the sea, he said.