With great fanfare, China launched its first super aircraft carrier, Fujian, into the sea this Friday. The most powerful ship ever built outside the United States symbolizes the assertiveness of the communist regime in the context of Cold War 2.0 against Washington and the turmoil of the conflict in Ukraine.
It is the third ship of its type operated by Beijing, and the first of a similar category to that of the American giants, although there are few technical details available.
The Chinese are now the only country in the world with more than two aircraft carriers, in addition to the US and its incomparable fleet of 11 warships that mark Washington’s global power projection since the end of World War II in 1945. Today, ten nations have that kind of weapon.
Beijing projects a fleet of six or seven carrier strike groups, experts say. A fourth model is already under construction, perhaps nuclear-powered, something that only the US and France dominate. Banners on Fujian spoke of China heading for “a navy with blue waters”, that is, with the ability to operate far from its ports.
Strategically, Beijing’s priority is to dominate its immediate strategic landscape, such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Since its economy depends on sea routes, the idea of projecting strength into the Indian Ocean, where they are concentrated, and perhaps contesting American power in the Pacific, is on the table.
Not coincidentally, Washington launched the new version of the Cold War in 2017. A war between the two is speculated, but seems unlikely, although triggers such as an eventual takeover of Taiwan are at hand.
The Ukrainian War also changed the geopolitical landscape. The Chinese are testing the Western reaction to the conflict, with sanctions as a prelude to what would happen to them. And Xi Jinping maintains firm support for Vladimir Putin, suggesting a global division into blocs.
For that, military strength is as important as economic strength. The US realized the Chinese assertiveness under Xi, at the head of the communist dictatorship since 2012, and activated a network of allies in the Indo-Pacific.
From the point of view of naval power, in any case, China will be a long way from the US for a long time. But it does not give up the aircraft carriers, demonstrating that the fear of analysts that these aquatic mastodons would become obsolete with the advance of hypersonic missile technology and other weapons is not shared by the powers. There is also the prestige factor: the United Kingdom, with less military weight, has, for example, two advanced models in action.
The vessel will still take some time to come into operation, but it is expected to take less time than in the case of its two predecessors, the Liaoning (six years of testing) and the Shandong (about one year).
While the two models in operation are derivatives of Soviet designs, one adapted and the other made in China, the Fujian was entirely designed locally and has characteristics equal only to the most advanced American model, the new generation Gerald Ford.
The main one is the aircraft launch deck, which is flat as on Western ships and does not boast the auxiliary ramp of the Soviet versions. Like the new Americans, the aircraft are assisted by electromagnetic catapults, more efficient than the usual ones powered by steam at high pressure.
Little is known about the Fujian, named after a southeastern Chinese province — Chinese media speculated that the ship takes its name from another, Jiangsu. Two structures with patriotic phrases hid her deck.
It is estimated to displace 80,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes, not the 60,000 tonnes suggested by local analysts, and satellite images suggest it is 320 meters long — compared with 337 meters for the Gerald Fords. It should be able to carry more than 60 aircraft.
The launch featured a national anthem, flag hoisting, jets of colored smoke and water at the Jiangnan docks in Shanghai. It was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and successive Chinese lockdowns, and this year alone the expected date has been postponed twice.