China's most advanced carrier, the 'Fujian' has just left the dry dock

It uses 'blocking devices,' and has a full-load displacement of over 80,000 tons.
Christopher McFadden
The launching and naming ceremony the Fujian.Xinhua/Chinese Ministry of Defense

In military news, China has just unveiled its third and allegedly "most advanced" aircraft carrier during its launch from the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai on Friday. The new ship comes with new combat weapons that analysts say are quickly catching up to the US.

The ship, dubbed "Fujian," is China's first domestically designed and built catapult aircraft carrier, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based research tank, its electromagnetic catapult-assisted launch technology is a significant improvement over the Liaoning and Shandong's less advanced ski jump-style launch systems.

The new system, if reports are true, which is comparable to that used by US aircraft carriers, will enable China to launch a larger range of aircraft from Fujian at a faster rate and with more ammunition. A significant development for the People's Liberation Army. 

In addition to the launch mechanism, the Fujian has "blocking devices" and a full-load displacement of more than 80,000 tons, according to Chinese news reports. The ship will is now scheduled to conduct anchoring and navigation tests.

According to Matthew Funaiole, a senior scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' China Project, the new ship will be the Chinese military's first modern aircraft carrier.

In an interview with CNN, he stated, "This is a pretty significant step forward." "They've really committed to building out a carrier program, and they continue to push the boundaries of what they're able to do," he added.

With Liaoning in the northeast and Shandong in the east, China names its aircraft carriers after its coastline provinces. The nearest province to Taiwan is Fujian in the southeast, separated by a strait that is less than 80 miles (128 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point.

Despite never having administered Taiwan, China's ruling Communist Party claims sovereignty over the self-governing democracy. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, has repeatedly stated that "reunification" between China and Taiwan is unavoidable and has refused to rule out the use of force.

China today has the world's largest naval force (by number), and aircraft carriers (like other navies) are the most important vessels in any major power's fleet. The large ships function as a mobile airbase, enabling the quick and long-term deployment of aircraft and weaponry to a conflict zone.

China's naval buildup comes amid rising geopolitical tensions with the United States, which is attempting to improve connections with friends and partners in the Asia-Pacific area to offset Beijing's expanding economic and military dominance.

Last year, Beijing reacted angrily to AUKUS, a security deal between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in which the three countries agreed to share military information and technology in order to build a tighter defense relationship in Asia. The naval maneuvers, which were attended by members of "The Quad" (an informal discussion between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India), have also further upset Beijing.

china launch new carrier
Official photo of the launch. Source: Chinese Ministry of Defense

Global naval tensions are now on the rise

The Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, was an incomplete Soviet-era ship that Beijing purchased from Ukraine in 1998, repaired, and commissioned in 2012.

The Chinese military used the technological knowledge garnered from the ship to build the Shandong, the country's first domestically built carrier, which entered service in December 2019.

Despite the fact that China's two early aircraft carriers enhanced its naval power, their capability remained far behind that of the United States, which has 11 aircraft carriers in service, including the incredibly powerful and large USS Gerald R. Ford, arguably the most advanced ship in the world. 

In addition, both the Liaoning and the Shandong were based on obsolete Soviet-era technology. The ski-jump launching technology was employed by those two carriers, in which planes basically take off from a short ramp, whereas US ships use a more complex catapult mechanism to launch their aircraft.

Catapulted aircraft can take off faster and carry more fuel and ammunition, providing them an edge over planes launched from a ski jump, which must rely on their own strength to take flight.

Despite the enhanced launch mechanism, Funaiole of CSIS believes the Chinese carrier still falls behind its American equivalents, which have more catapults, a wider airway, and more elevators to allow for faster aircraft deployment.

Another point to make is that all US aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered, but the Fujian is thought to be powered by conventional steam, which Funaiole believes will limit its range. "[Although] this may be less of a factor for China right now as many of its interests are in the near seas," he explained.

The Fujian will need to be tested and properly outfitted after its launch before it can be commissioned and officially enter service.
The US Department of Defense had originally predicted that the carrier would be ready for active service in 2023, but that deadline has now been moved back to 2024.

It took two years for the Shandong aircraft carrier to reach service after it was launched in 2017. Furthermore, the Fujian may have difficulty operating its catapults' electromagnetic launching technology.