China on Wednesday launched its second aircraft carrier, the first one to be built entirely at home, boosting its naval capabilities against the backdrop of concerns that the country is flexing its muscles in disputed waters such as the South China Sea.
The 70,000-tonne warship, decorated with red flags and ribbons, was transferred from a dry dock into the water during the launch ceremony at Dalian shipyard in northeastern Liaoning province.
The giant vessel slid into the water after a ribbon was cut and a champagne bottle was broken on its bow as steam whistles from nearby ships went off.
The Type 001A vessel, yet to be named, is China’s second aircraft carrier. The first was the Liaoning, which was made in the erstwhile Soviet Union and was extensively refurbished before being commissioned in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-Navy in 2012.
Construction of the new carrier began in November 2013 and experts believe it is likely to enter service around 2020, after several years of sea trials and testing of weapons and other systems.
“The main body of the carrier has been completed, with equipment of major systems including propulsion and electricity installed,” state-run Xinhua news agency reported. “After the launch, the new carrier will undergo equipment debugging, outfitting and mooring trials.”
Xinhua added that putting the carrier into water “marks progress in China’s efforts to design and build a domestic aircraft carrier”. The carrier is expected to carry 24 Shenyang J-15 combat jets, and 12 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
China has been rapidly modernising its navy at a time when it is engaged in disputes with several countries in the South China Sea. The launch of the vessel also coincided with a spike in tensions over the provocative actions of China’s close ally North Korea.
Only a limited number of countries, including the US, Russia, France and Britain, have the capability to design and operate aircraft carriers, which allow nations to protect overseas economic interests and project power far from their shores.
The launch of the aircraft carrier and China’s efforts to ramp up the capabilities of its navy will be closely watched by India, which is currently building its first home-grown carrier, the Vikrant.
The Vikrant is much smaller at 40,000 tonnes, meaning it will be able to carry fewer jets and helicopters. Work in it began at the Cochin Shipyard in 2009 and the carrier was launched from dry dock in 2011 but it is unlikely to be completed before 2023, about three years after the Chinese vessel.
India currently has only one active aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, which was purchased second hand from Russia and refurbished. Among other regional powers, Japan has two helicopter carriers that cannot launch jets. The US has 10 aircraft powers and the eleventh is set to be commissioned soon.