China launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier on Wednesday, with analysts pointing to Beijing’s rising capability to degrade the United States’ perceived military prominence in the region.
Chinese state media quoted military experts as saying the carrier, China’s second and built in the northeastern port of Dalian, is not expected to enter service until 2020, once it has been kitted out and armed.
Foreign military analysts and Chinese media have for months published satellite images, photographs, and news stories about the second carrier’s development. China officially confirmed its existence in late 2015.
The launch “shows our country’s indigenous aircraft carrier design and construction has achieved major step-by-step results,” the Xinhua news agency said in a report.
State television showed the carrier, its deck lined in red flags, being pushed by tug boats into its berth.
The launch follows China’s celebration on Sunday of the 68th birthday of the founding of the Chinese navy and comes amid renewed tensions between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s missile and military nuclear programs.
Little is known about China’s aircraft carrier program, which is a state secret. But the government has said the new carrier’s design draws on experiences from the country’s first carrier, the Liaoning, bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted in China.
The new conventionally-powered carrier will be able to operate China’s Shenyang J-15 fighter jets.
Unlike the US Navy’s longer-range nuclear carriers, both of China’s feature Soviet-design ski-jump bows, intended to give fighter jets enough lift to take off from their shorter decks. But they lack the powerful catapult technology for launching aircraft of their US counterparts.
‘No need’ to overtake the US
China’s navy has been taking an increasingly prominent role in recent months, with a rising star admiral taking command, its first aircraft carrier sailing around self-ruled Taiwan, and new Chinese warships sailing far from mainland.
The Liaoning has taken part in military exercises, including in the South China Sea, but is expected to serve more as a training vessel. State media have said the new carrier will be more dedicated to military and humanitarian operations.
Chinese state media have quoted experts as saying that the country needs at least six carriers. The United States operates 10 and plans to build two more.
Major General Chen Zhou, a researcher at the Academy of Military Science, told reporters in March that China would not exceed the United States in carrier groups. “China has no need for this,” he said.