China’s new domestically built Shandong aircraft carrier deployed in the South China Sea



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China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier has entered into service following a commissioning ceremony at a South China Sea naval base.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the ceremony in the southern island province of Hainan, inspecting equipment and guards onboard the new carrier, state media agency Xinhua reported.

The new carrier, which has been named the Shandong after the Chinese province of the same name, is just the second aircraft carrier in China’s navy, and the first to be manufactured in China.

“It puts them in a small league of countries that have done that,” Euan Graham, executive director of La Trobe Asia, told the ABC.

“Some countries have chosen to purchase their aircraft carriers — China went down that route for its first ship.”

A large aircraft carrier sits in the middle of a harbour with various inlets and mountainous peninsulas shown in the distance.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was a refitted Soviet-era vessel which Beijing bought second hand from Ukraine in 1998.

It can carry 24 fighter jets while the Shandong is capable of carrying 36, according to state television.

“It shows I guess an extra level of will, and of innovation, to be able to make the leap to domestic production,” Mr Graham said.

Mr Graham said it was significant Mr Xi attended the launch of the Shandong, with his presence suggesting the President saw the vessel as “a symbol of China’s status”.

The Chinese President has been overseeing a substantial modernisation of China’s military, with its armed forces this year showing off new hypersonic nuclear missiles and a submarine-hunting laser.

There was even a sighting of what appeared to be a warship-mounted electromagnetic railgun, theoretically capable of shooting five times faster than the speed of sound.

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But unlike those technological advancements — which are aimed at pushing out the layer of defences, denying airspace and sea-space to potential adversaries — Mr Graham said aircraft carriers were more of “a throwback to older times”.

“I think there’s a lot of internal debate within China about whether the carriers are in fact worth the investment,” he said.

“Technology is pushing the advantage towards the defender rather than the attacker in maritime warfare. That means in a high-intensity conflict, in which China faces a peer or near-peer adversary, let’s say Japan or the United States, the carriers would count for very little in the mix.

“They would be too vulnerable to attack by missile or by submarine.”

However the contested South China Sea, where China’s new aircraft carrier was launched, is a place where the vessel could play a powerful role,” Mr Graham said.

“In the lower order threshold of conflict, let’s say with perhaps with a Vietnam or another South-East Asian country, then [aircraft carriers] would be useful,” he said.

“They’re useful primarily as tools of status, but also tools of coercion to try and intimidate smaller powers into adjusting their behaviour for a China that has risen, and in the South China Sea in particular where might is right.”

While the Shandong is a modest improvement on the Liaoning, China’s aircraft carriers still lag behind those of the United States, which has 10 in service and is planning on building two more.

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Those American carriers are more advanced and feature catapult technology for launching aircraft, while both China’s vessels use so-called “ski-jumps” at the end of their bows.

Mr Graham said China’s next aircraft carriers would likely have catapults but even then China’s planes are still a work in progress.

“The ships basically are a floating airfield,” he said.

“What makes the carrier is really its air wing — and there China has also had developmental problems.”

The state-owned Global Times newspaper also mentioned this mismatch in capability in an editorial about the launch, however the paper said the new carrier would still make it harder for “radical US elites” to threaten China.