First Chinese-built Aircraft Carrier Ready for Sea Trials As Beijing Showcases Naval Power

Updated | China's first domestically-built aircraft carrier is now preparing for sea trials. The carrier is a potent symbol of the modernized Chinese military and of Beijing's ambition to be a self-reliant top-tier global power.

The carrier, launched in the northern Chinese port of Dalian on April 26, 2017, is known as the Type 001A. The latest photos from the shipyard where the carrier was launched show that the scaffolds on the ship have now been removed and that a phased array radar has been installed, China's Global Times newspaper reported.

The news comes as China conducted a massive naval exercise in the South China Sea. Beijing said the drill was the start of more frequent exercises as China challenges U.S. regional influence.

China introduced its first ever aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012. The former Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier was procured from Russia and repurposed for Chinese use. The deployment of the Type 001A will be a powerful statement of China's long-term intention to advance its interests in the South China Sea, already a diplomatic flash point.

Type 001A China aircraft carrier
Type 001A, China's second aircraft carrier, is transferred from the dry dock into the water during a launch ceremony at Dalian shipyard in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, April 26, 2017. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The steam-powered, 1,033-foot Type 001A will have a full load displacement of around 77,000 tons. It will be able to carry 48 aircraft when deployed. Though impressive, this is still less than the U.S. Navy's Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarriers, which are the largest warships ever built. 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.

Liu Zheng, the chairman of the Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company that operates the shipyard preparing the Type 001A, told state television broadcaster China Central Television, "All the equipment and devices on the carrier are in the joint debugging stage, and the main engine has been powered. In 2018, we will present a surprise to the Chinese people." Liu is also the general director of construction for the Type 001A and a member of the National People's Congress (NPC).

Type 001a china aircraft carrier
Type 001A is seen during a launch ceremony at Dalian shipyard in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, April 26, 2017. STR/AFP/Getty Images

While it seems clear the Type 001A is preparing for sea trials, their exact timing has not been announced. The military might be eyeing China's Navy Day on April 23, which marks the founding of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. This year will mark the navy's 69-year anniversary.

Chinese military expert Song Zhongping told Global Times, "After the sea trial, which normally takes about 6-12 months, it will be ready for delivery to the PLA Navy, so it's very likely we will see the carrier enlisted by the end of 2018."

The eventual name of the Type 001A is yet to be decided. PLA Navy warships are traditionally named after Chinese regions, but some politicians and social media users have argued the carrier's name should signal an intent to re-establish control over Taiwan as part of Beijing's "One China" policy.

Suggestions include naming the warship after Shi Lang, an admiral who recaptured Taiwan for the Qing dynasty in 1683. Another proposed name is simply Taiwan, Global Times said.

Matthew Funaiole, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told Newsweek that the development of the Type 001A is "hugely significant."

The Liaoning was used "as a training vessel for China," he explained, "providing [the PLA Navy] with invaluable lessons that can only be learned during operations. Designing and building a carrier from scratch has similar benefits. China ship designers and naval personnel are not just figuring out how to build one ship, but several carriers—each with new and improved technology. China is working toward incrementally matching some of the best carrier technology in the world, and the Type 001A is a big step in the right direction."

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China's Liaoning aircraft carrier arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017. The Liaoning is important as a training vessel for the PLA Navy. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

When the Type 001A is fully deployed, it will give the PLA Navy far more flexibility in its regional military operations. "How China chooses to use the Type 001A will depend a lot on what international politics in the Pacific looks like in the coming years," Funaiole suggested.

"It is important to keep in mind here that the Type 001A, although domestically built, still faces some of the technical limitations of the Liaoning. Its launch system is limited and its powerplant (conventional steam turbine) will restrict its range," he noted.

"China also faces limitations the further afield its carriers travel from the Chinese mainland," Funaiole continued. "Unlike the US, China doesn't—yet—have a network of basing support/ports where it can refuel/refit its vessels."

China's third carrier, known as the Type 002, is already under construction. It will be even larger than the 001A, with a displacement of around 88,000 tons.

This article has been updated to include Matthew Funaiole's comments.