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.