Beijing to Double Aircraft Carrier Strength Amid South China Sea Tensions

China's first domestically-produced aircraft carrier set sail for military exercises Tuesday, as Beijing continues to expand its naval strength amid tensions in the South China Sea and a campaign to establish regional hegemony.

The Shandong is China's second carrier, but the first constructed from scratch in China. The first—the Liaoning—is a Kuznetsov-class Soviet Union carrier purchased from Ukraine and modernized before entering duty in 2012.

The Shandong marks a key milestone for China's military modernization, and doubles its aircraft carrier capacity. The carrier is now heading for the Bohai Sea where it will take part in military exercises over the next 22 days, China's state-backed Global Times newspaper reported.

The carrier is expected to be armed with J-15 fighter jets and, if trials are successful, could enter service by the end of this year. The Shandong sailed out of the Dalian shipyard in northeast China's Liaoning province on Tuesday morning with the assistance of tugboats. Its departure was marked with a fireworks display.

The Shandong has already completed one set of sea trials since it was commissioned in December 2019. The first set of exercises took place in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay during May and June.

The Shandong's sea trials are just one element of increased naval activity around China's coast in recent weeks, coinciding with fresh tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own, despite overlapping claims from five neighbors. The sea is a busy shipping route and could be home to some 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as extensive fishing grounds.

Chinese forces have effectively established control of much of the sea through an expansive land reclamation and expansion campaign, developing the small island chains into a series of military bases. The island bases have been militarized and some can host warships, nuclear-capable bombers and anti-ship missiles.

The U.S. and other democratic nations have continued "freedom of navigation" operations to contest China's claim of control, sailing through and flying over the South China Sea despite Chinese protests and threats.

Tensions also remain high to the north in the Taiwan Strait, which separates China from democratic Taiwan. Beijing considers the island a wayward province and has vowed to bring it under Chinese Communist Party control, whether through diplomacy or force.

The U.S. has long supported Taiwan with weapons sales and regional military deployments, including nearby aircraft carrier operations. The U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan but is legally bound to help defend the island against invasion.

Global Times said the Shandong could operate in unison with the Liaoning, enabling China to "squeeze the island of Taiwan from different angles" and "lock down the island and deny possible U.S. intervention."

The Shandong is the more advanced of China's two carriers. Some 1,033 feet long with a displacement of around 77,000 tons, the Shandong has an enlarged hangar enabling more jet and helicopter storage, plus a gentler angle for its takeoff ski jump. It will be able to carry some 44 aircraft when deployed.

But the Chinese carrier fleet is still some way behind its American rival. Even the latest carrier is significantly smaller than the U.S. Navy's Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarriers. The USS George H.W. Bush—the most recent Nimitz-class carrier—is 1,092 feet long, displaces around 102,000 tons and generally carries up to 56 fixed-wing aircraft.

The U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers in service—more than the rest of the world combined. This includes the lead ship of the new Gerald R. Ford-class range, the first of which—the USS Gerald R. Ford—came into service in 2017. It is currently undergoing its final trials and will be followed by another nine of the same class.

The Gerald R. Ford is equipped with an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System that allows the launch of heavier and more advanced aircraft at high speeds. The Shandong will use a more traditional ski-jump launch method, but China is planning to introduce the EMALS on future carriers that are already under development.

China, aircraft carrier, Shandong, South China Sea
China's first home-built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, sets out from a port in Dalian, China, for sea trials on May 13, 2018. Getty Images/Getty