On a cold bright morning in December 2019, the naval base in the city of Sanya in the Chinese southern island province of Hainan hosted an event that signaled a significant shift in the power projection capability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In a ceremony watched over by President Xi Jinping, China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier, the Shandong (Type 002), was commissioned into the fleet. Its development, construction, and acceptance into service took place at a frighteningly fast pace — the carrier was only launched in early 2017 with sea trials beginning in May 2018 — and is a major statement of intent.
The Shandong sends a message not only to those regional powers attempting to check China’s plans to exercise hegemony inside the nine-dash line disputed area of the South China Sea, but also to the bigger global powers. In particular, it’s a warning bell for the United States, which is increasingly concerned that the pace of Chinese ship building and military technology development will diminish its military dominance and allow growing Chinese assertiveness to expand into the wider Indian-Pacific region unconstrained.
Many naval analysts anxiously ask: Is this the case? Or is China’s new warship a paper tiger — a visually impressive statement that nevertheless will do little to challenge the United States’ and the West’s pre-eminence in carrier aviation and operations?