High resolution private satellite images gathered and analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) seems to suggest that China is rapidly expanding its aircraft carrier construction infrastructure in the area around the shipyard where they currently have one carrier in production. Based on the level of construction shown in pictures taken in April and September of last year, it appears likely that China will have the capacity to rapidly produce carriers and other large vessels within the next 12 months.
“We can see slow but steady progress on the hull, but I think the really surprising thing these images show is the extensive infrastructure buildup that has gone on simultaneously,” said CSIS analyst Matthew Funaiole.
“It is hard to imagine all this is being done for just one ship. This looks more like a specialized space for carriers and or other larger vessels.”
This revelation is in keeping with an assertion made by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies earlier this year, in which they pointed out that China’s ship-building endeavor has turned the corner toward larger surface combatant ships. According to their assessment, this shift points to a larger overall shift in emphasis for the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, with an increasing focus on power competition with the U.S.’ massive naval presence around the world. China has, however, stopped highlighting the launch of new ships in their state-run media, making it increasingly difficult to know exactly what is being built and what is being launched without maintaining a close eye on shipyards and the occasional mention of new vessels in Chinese media. The construction of a third aircraft carrier, tentatively dubbed the Type 002, has not yet been formally announced by the Chinese government, for instance — but its development has been mentioned a handful of times by state officials and journalists employed by China’s state-owned media.
Based on the images, analysts believe the carriers China is constructing will be slightly smaller than America’s massive Nimitz and Ford-class super carriers, each of which weigh in at around 100,000 tons. They will, however, be larger than the carriers fielded by nations like France, which tip the scales at less than half of that (42,500 tons or so). China’s immediate goals include securing the entirety of the South China Sea — which is a massive waterway that sees nearly a third of global commerce cross its surface and harbors competing claims of sovereignty from a number of nations in the region. China’s claims, however, are the furthest reaching and carry the least basis in international law or norms. As a result, tensions between China and other regional powers in the Pacific continue to grow.
However, China’s plans extend far beyond the limits of their “9 Dash Line” (which is what they call the border of their South China Sea claims). China’s rapidly expanding Navy coincides directly with the nation’s economic initiatives like the Belt and Road program, which (among other things) promises infrastructure building loans to underdeveloped nations in exchange for Chinese partnerships. As China purchases economic leverage around the world through these loans, they hope to transition their Navy into a truly “Blue Water” fleet — meaning one capable of deep-sea, long range voyages, rather than having to stay close to friendly refueling ports. It is worth noting, however, that China’ does not currently possess a truly reliable carrier-based fighter — though plans appear to be underway to field their fifth-generation J-20 on future carriers.
In order to expand China’s military presence around the world, they seem to be pulling directly from America’s post-World War II playbook, using money to create lasting relationships around the world that they can leverage toward their strategic goals, and now apparently, also looking to rely on a fleet of aircraft carriers to offer them greater force projection capabilities.
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