In spite of China's carrier program remaining a state secret, and with no official confirmation of its extent, new satellite images published by Reuters reveal that China’s first full-sized aircraft carrier is being built at the Jiangnan shipyard outside Shanghai.
Upon completion it would be China's third carrier, which Pentagon officials said last week was being worked on as the US military attempts to accurately assess the PLA's capabilities (People's Liberation Army). Last Fall state media confirmed the program, but Tuesday is the first time images have been made available to confirm it is indeed making rapid progress.
The satellite images are from April, and were produced and analyzed the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Reuters observes the images "reveal considerable recent activity during the last six months on a large vessel" .
The project is seen as part of President Xi's recent years' push to usher in a period of modernization of China’s military, which has worried Asian rivals and Washington alike, potentially challenging US naval dominance in East Asian seas, which has lately been met with a series of confrontations and tensions with the PLA Navy in places like the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.
The Reuters report summarized the CSIS analysis of the new satellite images as follows:
The CSIS images show a bow section that appears to end with a flat 30-metre (98-foot) front and a separate hull section 41 meters wide, with gantry cranes looming overhead.
That suggests a vessel, which China has dubbed Type 002, somewhat smaller than 100,000-tonne U.S. carriers but larger than France’s 42,500-tonne Charles de Gaulle, analysts say.
Fabrication halls the size of several soccer pitches have been built nearby, and work appears to be continuing on a floodable basin, possibly to float the finished hull into the nearby Yangtze River estuary.
All of its observable features are “consistent with what is expected for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s third aircraft carrier,” according to the CSIS analysis.
The report, however, says at this point its still unclear whether it will be nuclear-powered, given that China currently has no surface ships with nuclear propulsion — a potential monumental step — though it does maintain ten nuclear-powered submarines.
Regardless, given that China's first two carriers are small, carrying only 25 aircraft, a full size aircraft carrier could radically alter the strategic balance in East Asia and further bridge the gap between the PLA Navy and US Navy's capabilities in the region.
Singapore-based regional security analyst Ian Storey made the following crucial observation as part of the Reuters report:
“Once completed, it will outclass any warship from any Asian country, including India and Japan,” said Storey, of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute. “It is yet another indication that China has emerged as Asia’s paramount naval power.”
Chinese officials have recently made public comments which suggest China's ambitious are set at developing at least six carriers in the coming years and decades, compares to the United States' 11 that it operates.