Smoke rising from the chimney of a huge warship moored at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai this month was the clearest sign yet that the Fujian, China’s newest aircraft carrier, was getting ready to sail.
After sheds on the warship’s deck were dismantled over the past few months, “it has started testing its propulsion system”, said Hsu Yen-chi, a researcher at the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies think-tank in Taipei.
The ship, China’s third aircraft carrier and the first designed domestically, marks a leap in Beijing’s pursuit of projecting armed force far beyond its shores — part of leader Xi Jinping’s goal of making the People’s Liberation Army a “world-class military” by the middle of the century.
Foreign defence officials and analysts said the Fujian’s test runs and entry into service would offer clues as to how quickly China can catch up with the US amid intensifying competition and Beijing’s growing military pressure on Taiwan.
Hsu said the Fujian’s mission would be to offset the air superiority of the US and its allies in the western Pacific and east Asia and equip the PLA with greater operational freedom.
“Because the Fujian uses many new technologies that the PLA has not utilised before, the testing time will definitely be longer than that of the previous carrier,” he said. “However, I think she will start sea trials before the end of this year.”
Over the past two years, the PLA Navy has begun sending the two aircraft carriers it already has in service on training missions outside the first island chain, which runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines, and much closer to Guam, home to several large US military bases. But the small size and outdated design of the Liaoning and the Shandong limit the scale and scope of their operations.
Compared with the US Navy’s advanced carriers, which use nuclear propulsion systems, the conventionally powered Fujian will still be slow and have limited range. But in other respects, it demonstrates a substantial evolution from China’s earlier carriers.
The Fujian is built to dispatch fighter jets air with an electromagnetic catapult, a launch system on par with the USS Gerald Ford, the US Navy’s most advanced carrier in service. By contrast, the Liaoning, China’s first carrier built from a Ukrainian-made hull acquired in 1999, and the Shandong, a copy of that ship manufactured in China, use older ski-jump ramps.
Moreover, the Fujian is the first PLA carrier that can carry a complete fleet of aircraft, including patrol aircraft and early warning and control planes.
“The experience of managing such a mixed fleet cannot be learned from the previous two carriers, and managing and dispatching carrier-based aircraft is the key to the combat effectiveness of an aircraft carrier,” Hsu said.
None of that is likely to start until next year at the earliest. Sea trials of the Liaoning and the Shandong took more than a year before they began operations with China’s carrier-borne F-15 fighters in earnest.
“This phase is bound to drag out longer for the Fujian as the crew needs to familiarise itself with an entirely new set of equipment, procedures and even dimensions,” said a senior military official of a neighbouring country.
Even then, defence experts said the Fujian would not be able to play a real battle role any time soon.
“The first two carriers were really experimental platforms,” said Alexander Neill, an expert on the Chinese military at the Pacific Forum. “The Liaoning helped the Chinese navy get into aircraft carrier operating mode for the first time — working up a cadre of operators, generating a group of officers familiar with the issues. The Shandong was an experiment in gearing up the shipbuilding industry to supply the PLA Navy with these kinds of ships.
“Now, once they have the Fujian in service, they will be experimenting with carrier operations at scale and at pace.”
The Chinese navy’s learning curve has been steep. The Liaoning did not conduct its first training mission with aircraft outside the first island chain until 2021, almost nine years after it entered service. The Shandong shortened that period to a little more than two years. In more regular large-scale exercises since April 2021, the two warships have increased their range and operating pace.
The Japanese military counted about 300 sorties during two Liaoning exercises in the western Pacific in December 2021 and May 2022. That figure increased to more than 600 such sorties during a similar drill by the Shandong in April this year.
While PLA Navy aviators practised take-off and landing on the Liaoning just over 700 nautical miles off the Chinese coast in May last year, the carrier pushed that range to 1,300 nautical miles during its most recent western Pacific drill in December — a distance at which analysts said the jets would have had no option to refuel on land.
These were truly “blue water operations”, wrote Mike Dahm, a former US naval intelligence officer and now an analyst at the Mitre Corporation think-tank, which conducts defence research for the US government, in a paper published in January. “China’s navy is evolving at an astonishing rate,” he added.
On Monday, the Shandong passed through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan en route to China’s largest-ever training exercises involving an aircraft carrier in the western Pacific.
But Chinese and foreign observers believe the PLA needs significantly more time to “learn” carrier operations that the US military has been conducting for decades. According to Japanese military officials, the Liaoning and the Shandong manage only about 20 fighter sorties a day on average, less than one-seventh of the rate the Gerald Ford has achieved.
The larger Fujian, with its advanced launch system, is expected to help the PLA Navy master those tasks. Yet it remains unclear when China will be able to deploy large carrier battle groups including submarines and build a nuclear-powered carrier.
“Those are the next goalposts, but they would be a major leap,” said Neill.
He added Beijing might aim for a prototype for a nuclear-powered carrier by 2040, when Australia starts receiving nuclear-powered submarines under its Aukus deal with the US and UK.
Asked on Monday what would change when the Fujian enters service, Admiral Richard Chen, a former commander of Taiwan’s Navy, said the carrier would make “no difference” to the PLA’s real naval capabilities.
“Their qualified naval aviators are not enough,” he said. “Of course [the PLA Navy is] showing their muscle, but their capacity is still far behind that of the US.”