With tensions escalating in the South China Sea, Beijing has been steadily upgrading its naval forces. In addition to the construction of new fighter jets, early-warning patrol aircraft, anti-submarine warplanes and helicopters, the PLA Navy is also in the process of adding new aircraft carriers.
While a second carrier is currently under construction, a third is in the planning phase.
A photograph of a mockup of this third vessel reveals new details. While previous designs included a ski-jump section at the ship’s bow to provide aircraft with adequate lift, the new design does not include this structure, indicating the likelihood of a catapult launch system.
According to IHS Jane’s, satellite photos of Huangdicun Airbase appear to show the construction of two catapult systems. One of these is thought to be steam-powered while the other is an electromagnetic version.
The second aircraft carrier, now nearly complete, features a more sophisticated design than its predecessor, the Liaoning. According to Yin Zhuo, chairman of the consulting committee of the PLA Navy, the vessel will be able to carry more weapons, fighters, and fuel.
In June, photos surfaced of China’s new nuclear-powered Type 093 attack submarine. The Shang-class vessel appears to feature vertical-launch shafts that could fire both YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles and DF-10 long-range land-attack cruise missiles.
Beijing’s naval modernization comes as the United States and its Pacific allies work to escalate tensions in the South China Sea. A highly contested region through which roughly $5 trillion in trade passes annually, most of the waterway is claimed by China, though there are overlapping claims by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia.
While the Hague-based Court of Arbitration recently ruled against China’s nine-dash territorial claims, Beijing does not recognize the decision as legitimate.
The Pentagon has carried out a number of progressive patrol through the region, including several within the 12-mile territorial limit of Beijing’s artificial islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
As China works to assert its claims, new ships and equipment could well play a significant role.