China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) has undergone a broad and extensive modernization and expansion effort in recent years. With dozens of new warships launched and multiple carriers in production, the PLA-N promises to quickly become the dominant power in the Pacific. It’s a serious concern for neighboring nations with overlapping claims on the South China Sea, and for the United States, thanks to the massive amount of commerce shipped over the South China Sea annually. However, there are still a number of hurdles China must overcome before it can secure a place at the top of the region’s military heap.

China currently has only one operational aircraft carrier in service, the Soviet-hulled Liaoning that is actually a sister ship (at least fundamentally) to Russia’s sole and perpetually-troubled carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. However, China’s first home-built carrier, the Type 001A, is currently undergoing sea trials, and construction of another carrier, the Type 002, began last year. Once completed, the PLA-N will have a fleet of three aircraft carriers–more than enough to project a great deal of force when fully manned and equipped, but these carriers are significantly limited by their propulsion systems. All three carriers rely on massive diesel engines to get around, forcing them to remain within commuting distance of friendly ports for refueling. In effect, the propulsion systems used on China’s first three carriers doom them to a “green water” navy status, meaning, they are unable to serve as a means of force projection beyond the coastal waters of the nation.

China plans to have 6 aircraft carriers by 2035. How will the US Navy compare?
China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning arrives on July 7, 2017 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.  (Photo by Keith Tsuji/Getty Images)

However, China is not content with ensuring it has the largest naval presence in its own neighborhood. China’s naval expansion has been developing hand-in-hand with economic initiatives aimed at expanding China’s influence the world over. Low-interest infrastructure loans to high-risk developing nations serve as just one way China has been developing new trade lines over land and sea with the intention of placing Chinese markets, rather than American ones, at the center of the global economy. This effort would fail to survive a large-scale conflict, however, unless China develops the means to defend its interests abroad.

With that concept specifically in mind, China is moving forward with plans to build and deploy four nuclear-powered carriers by 2035. Once done, the nation will boast a fleet of six aircraft carriers, assuming it chooses to retire the dated Liaoning, though it seems more likely that China will instead sell the carrier to Pakistan. A third of those remaining carriers, those already in testing or under development, would serve as local security due to their diesel limitations, with the other two-thirds feasibly able to operate the world over, relying on friendly ports established through economic initiatives for resupply and nuclear propulsion to avoid concerns about refueling.

According to Chinese naval expert and former PLA-N officer Wang Yunfei, China will keep its financial focus on a naval buildup even if trade conflicts with the United States have a long-standing negative effect on the nation’s economy.

Even if the economic downturn has an effect, we can adjust proportions in total military expenditure to make sure naval modernization keeps going,” he said. “For example, we can cut the number of new tanks. The budget for military modernization will not be cut, even if [Beijing] decided to [use force to] reunify Taiwan. In a war scenario, [Beijing] may reduce spending on things like infrastructure, but it would increase military expenditure.”

China will soon have 3 aircraft carriers, lots of pilots, but no aircraft

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However, things aren’t all steaming in China’s direction. Fielding six carriers will undoubtedly exacerbate concerns that China does not have a reliable carrier-based fighter to employ on its new fleet of ships. It will also need to recruit and train the personnel needed to operate these carriers, and the ships, technology, and “blue water” navy methodology will all be new to the crews and the nation. It will be some time before China learns how to effectively leverage the power these carriers bring to bear even once there are jets to launch from them. China’s overall lack of combat operations experience will also hinder the maturation of the troops and procedures.

China currently employs the J-15 as its carrier-based fighter. It’s a platform based on Russia’s capable Su-33 but, according to reports out of China, these planes are heavier and less reliable than their Russian forefathers. A number of incidents China has formally acknowledged (and a number of others they haven’t) indicate the J-15 is far too troubled to serve as a formidable opponent to American fighters of the same generation. That includes the Navy’s forthcoming Block III Super Hornets, as well as fifth-generation platforms like the F-35C and F-35B launched from Navy carriers and Marine Corps amphibious assault ships respectively.

China plans to have 6 aircraft carriers by 2035. How will the US Navy compare?
J-15 conducting carrier operations. Courtesy of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy.

As a result, it’s widely expected that China will begin fielding its latest fighter, the J-31, to serve aboard forthcoming carriers. The J-31, said to be a fifth-generation fighter itself, is based on stolen plans for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, suggesting to some that it may make for a significant leap forward in Chinese military capabilities. However, problems with China’s F-22 copy, the J-20, suggest that the Chinese still lack a sufficient power plant for a truly fifth-generation platform. It may still be years before the J-20 achieves true fifth-generation status as compared to America’s F-22 and F-35. The J-31 will likely be even further behind.

China will soon have the most powerful naval presence in the Pacific (one could argue it already does), with an eye set toward usurping the United States as the most powerful navy on the globe, but it will still be some time before their military capability is even close to that of the American military apparatus. That is not, however, reason to dismiss China’s expansion. Military initiatives are measured in years and decades, and China is only a few decades away from giving America a run for its money on the high seas.