China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier enters service

China has officially commissioned its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, a significant step forward in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions for the country to field a world-class navy.

Xi attended the commissioning ceremony in the southern province of Hainan Tuesday, according to state-run media, where the Shandong finally entered service as part of the People’s Liberation Navy.

According to state-run news agency Xinhua, Xi presented a Chinese flag and a certificate with the ship’s official name to the ship’s captain and political commissar.

The Shandong, which uses conventional rather than nuclear propulsion, is the second carrier in the Chinese fleet. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a retrofitted Soviet-era vessel, was purchased from the Ukrainian government in 1998.

Both the Liaoning and the Shandong use ski-jump style ramps at the end of the flight deck to launch planes, a comparatively older technology compared to the United States Navy’s preferred “catapult” technology.

Aircraft launched by catapults can get airborne quicker and with greater quantities of fuel and ammunition, giving them an advantage over Chinese planes, which rely on their own power when lifting off from ski-jumps.

The aircraft carrier’s name was officially announced on Tuesday. Before then, it had been only known as the Type 001A. Both of China’s aircraft carriers, the Shandong and the Liaoning, are named after coastal provinces close to Beijing.

According to Peter Layton, visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, the Liaoning was intended to act as more of a training vessel, whereas the Shandong is likely to be deployed in combat missions, positioning China alongside a select number of countries with global naval capabilities, including Russia, France, the US, and the United Kingdom.

‘World class force’

The official launch of the carrier comes just a month after Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told his US counterpart Mark Esper that Washington must stop “flexing its muscles” in the South China Sea.

Naval competition between the two countries has increased in recent years, amid a sweeping Chinese moderation drive that has seen Beijing launch more submarines, warships, amphibious vessels and auxiliaries since 2014 than the entire serving navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

China has the second largest military budget in the world, behind only the US. Speaking at a mass naval parade in the South China Sea in April 2018, Xi said the People’s Liberation Navy needed to become a “world-class force.”

There are even suggestions that the Chinese navy may be already be building its third aircraft carrier at a naval base in Shanghai, which will likely be more technologically advanced than both its sister ships.

The Shandong was launched to much fanfare in April 2017, before being sent out to sea trials just over a year later in May 2018.

The new aircraft carrier took slightly longer to finish its sea trials than its sister ship, the Liaoning, which experts said may have been due to the unexpected difficulties of building and outfitting the complex vessel from scratch.

“I think the politicians in the Chinese Communist Party didn’t really comprehend the challenges of acquiring a carrier,” said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in Defense Strategy and Capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“The Liaoning was relatively easy but the Type 001A and the vessels that follow her will be much more complex. I think the Chinese have got their work cut out for them.”