Politics & News

Strategic Competition: China’s Fujian Aircraft Carrier Begins Sea Trials

China’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, the Fujian, has started sea trials on Wednesday, reported Chinese state media.

The aircraft carrier has set out of Shanghai, with the naval assessment expected to take place in the East China Sea. The sea trials “will primarily test the reliability and stability of the aircraft carrier’s propulsion and electrical system,” according to Chinese Xinhua news agency.

Sea Trials

Carl Schuster, a former US navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, expected the current round of Fujian’s sea trials to last 3 to 6 days, and would not include flight operations.

He said: “Radars and communications equipment will get some testing, but the first sea trials always focus on hull integrity, propulsion and engineering since problems there prevent everything else from working well.”

The sea trials are expected to take at least a year, and the carrier commission is expected to take place in 2025 or 2026, according to analysts.

New Capabilities

According to CNN, the Fujian has a displacement of 80,000 metric tons. This makes it more advanced than the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) two active carriers, the 66,000-ton Shandong and the 60,000-ton Liaoning. No other navy operates bigger aircraft carriers than Fujian except the US Navy.

Strategic Competition: China’s Fujian Aircraft Carrier Begins Sea Trials

The Fujian, entirely designed and built domestically, features an advanced electromagnetic catapult system that enables it to launch larger and heavier aircraft carriers than the Shandong and Liaoning, which use a ski-jump style launch method.

This ability gives the carrier a greater combat range than its predecessors, enhancing the PLAN capabilities, analysts say. In this regard, Schuster said: “These sea trials mark the first major step in China’s developing the capacity to project sea-based air power into deep ocean areas.”

“The Fujian’s sea trials represent an important milestone for the PLAN, marking its entry into the small club of top-class carrier aviation-capable navies,” noted John Bradford, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Significant Addition

Fujian will be an important addition to the PLAN fleet. It will be the icon of the world’s largest naval force, which include over 340 warships amid China’s efforts to modernize its military and expand its naval power by adding more ships.

“It will be the most visible symbol of China’s growing naval power,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

China is planning to announce a fourth aircraft carrier soon, PLAN political commissar Yuan Huazhi said in March, as reported by the state-run Global Times. Meanwhile, the US Navy is constructing three Ford-class carriers, the future John F Kennedy, Enterprise and Doris Miller.

Fujian Vs. US Carriers

The US newest carrier, USS Gerald R Ford, is the only active aircraft carrier in the world with an electromagnetic catapult system. Now, this puts the Fujian on par with US flagship carrier.

Strategic Competition: China’s Fujian Aircraft Carrier Begins Sea Trials
USS Gerald R Ford

However, US carriers have two key advantages over the Fujian: power and size. US carriers are nuclear powered, which gives them ability to stay at sea for a long time, whereas the Fujian uses conventional fuel, so it must refuel either by making a port call or by another tanker at sea.

According to estimates by the CSIS, US aircraft carriers can take up to 75 aircrafts, compared to 60 for the Fujian. In addition, US carriers have more catapults, a larger airway and more elevators for quicker deployment of aircraft from the hangar.

Flexing Muscles

The Fujian test comes at a time of when the South China Sea has emerged as an arena of US-China strategic competition. China is increasing its island- and base-building activities in the disputed Spratly Islands and trying to assert its claims against competing claims by regional neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Another concern for the US is the actions of Chinese naval forces at the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

According to Congressional Research Service report “U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas: Background and Issues for Congress,” China’s domination of regions near the South and East China Seas, as well as the Yellow Sea, could have huge implications on the US strategic, political and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region and other regions.

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