China on Friday launched its biggest and most modern aircraft carrier, marking a major military advance for the Asian superpower.
The announcement comes at a time of heightened tensions between China and the United States over Beijing’s sabre-rattling towards Taiwan, which it views as a breakaway province to be seized by force if necessary.
China’s carrier development programme is part of a massive overhaul of the People’s Liberation Army under President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to build a “fully modern” force to rival the US military by 2027.
The new carrier, named Fujian, is the “first catapult aircraft carrier wholly designed and built by China”, said state broadcaster CCTV.
Columns of sailors in white uniforms applauded under colourful clouds of smoke as jets of water arced over the gigantic vessel to mark its launch.
Colourful streamers hung from its flight deck, on which large banners read: “Strive for the comprehensive construction of a… first-class navy.”
The launch of the carrier marks a major milestone for the Chinese military.
It has significantly more advanced technology than China’s two other carriers, including electromagnetic catapults to launch aircraft off its deck, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The other carriers — the Liaoning and the Shandong — use a ski-jump-style ramp for takeoffs.
And with a displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes, according to Xinhua, it is comparable in size to the supercarriers of the United States Navy, analysts said.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said it could be a “game changer” for the Chinese navy.
“The conventional flight deck with (electromagnetic catapults) will at least in theory allow the carrier to launch aircraft faster and with heavier payloads — which constitute key deciding factors during battle,” he told AFP.
“At a strategic level, the new carrier heralds the coming of age of a blue-water PLA Navy.”
Blue-water navies are able to operate around the world at vast ranges.
It will take years before the Fujian becomes operational, however. Authorities have not said when it will enter service.
The Liaoning was commissioned in 2012, and the Shandong entered service in 2019.
The Shandong was the first aircraft carrier entirely built by China.
The United States has by far the most aircraft carriers in service at 11 ships, followed by China and Britain at two each, according to defence magazine Janes.
Unlike the US Navy’s nuclear-powered supercarriers, the Fujian uses conventional propulsion. Nuclear vessels have significant advantages over conventional ships as they can operate for long periods without the need to dock and refuel.
The launch of the carrier comes at a time of ramped-up geopolitical tensions as Washington looks to shore up military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
Last year, the United States secured a historic deal with Britain to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia and has since made multiple arms sales to self-ruled Taiwan, provoking angry responses from Beijing.
Meanwhile, China brokered an unprecedented security agreement with the Solomon Islands earlier this year which blindsided Washington and its allies, stoking fears of a Chinese military base in the Pacific.
In recent years, Beijing has deployed naval assets as a show of power in the strait that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland.
It has also used fighter jets to repel freedom of navigation patrols by the United States and its allies.
Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe last week warned his US counterpart that Beijing would “not hesitate to start a war, no matter the cost” if Taiwan declared independence.
State media reported that the PLA’s newest aircraft carrier is named after China’s Fujian province — which lies across from Taiwan.