China is building its fourth aircraft carrier as it seeks to boost its naval power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the vessel is “likely to be nuclear powered”, a new report revealed on Saturday, citing sources close to the country’s military.
The South China Morning Post quoted a person close to the Chinese navy as saying that shipbuilders “are keen on making a significant breakthrough” with the construction of the fourth carrier.
“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry,” the source told the Post.
Another unnamed source also told the publication that Chinese officials are studying a proposal “to use nuclear power for the fourth carrier”.
The person did not say if a final decision was made, but told the Post it would be “a very bold decision that is full of challenges”.
Construction of the fourth ship, which has already been delayed for two years, resumed earlier this year.
Currently, there are two Chinese aircraft carriers already operating and a third one that is expected to be launched this year – none of them have nuclear capability.
Growing naval arsenal
It was only in 2017 when China launched its first domestically made aircraft carrier, in a demonstration of the growing technical sophistication of its defence industries.
The 50,000-tonne carrier, known as Shandong, is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov-class design, with a ski jump-style deck for taking off and a conventional oil-fuelled steam turbine power plant.
The other vessel in operation is the 60,000-tonne Liaoning aircraft carrier, which was bought from Ukraine.
The third one, expected to be in operation this year, has an estimated displacement of about 85,000 tonnes, according to the Post report.
It was reported in 2017 that China was already building a vessel at a shipyard outside Shanghai that is expected to be closer in size to the US Navy’s nuclear-powered 100,000-tonne Nimitz-class ships, with flat flight decks and catapults to allow planes to launch with more bombs and fuel on board.
Aside from the two aircraft carriers in operation, China already has in its arsenal more than a dozen nuclear-powered submarines.
China is working to hone its carrier operations but has little experience compared with the United States, which has operated integrated carrier battle groups with multiple vessels for decades.
China claims almost all the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, where it has established military outposts on artificial islands.
That claim has been declared as without legal basis by the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague. China refused to participate in the case and later dismissed the ruling as “null and void”.
Since the court ruling, tensions have been building up further, with the US and its allies increasing the number of its naval exercises and patrols in the South China Sea, asserting freedom of navigation in open seas, to the chagrin of Beijing.
The United States regularly accuses China of militarising the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbours who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
In response, China has also started to carry out more military exercises and patrols.
In December, the Shandong aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait on its way to routine drills in the South China Sea, just a day after a US warship passed through the same stretch of sea.
In January, Beijing also passed a law that for the first time explicitly allowed its coastguard to fire on foreign vessels.
The Coast Guard Law empowers it to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations or individuals at sea”.
Amid alarm among the countries surrounding the sea, China said the law was a “normal domestic” measure that was not aimed a particular country.