One of the ongoing debates among analysts concerning the expansion of China's military has been the extent that it is developing its ability to project force over long distances. This debate has primarily concerned the evolution of the People's Liberation Army Navy and the People's Liberation Army Air Force, as China has increased funding to its military by 'double-digit percentages' for the last two decades.
Two recent developments are worth noting in this regard.
Earlier this year, a photo posted on the Chinese social networking site Weibo of the Dalian shipyards in northern China suggested that Beijing was building its first indigenous aircraft carrier. Late last month, satellite imagery published by IHS Janes encouraged further speculation that the hull under construction was a 'flat-top', based on its dimensions and the fact that it is in the same dry-dock where China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was refurbished. A new photo published in a Chinese defence forum in recent days (see above) shows the latest construction of the ship and the beginnings of a hangar deck, making it a safe bet that the vessel is indeed an aircraft carrier.
The construction of indigenous aircraft carriers would not be outside the bounds of what China has stated is the future mission of the PLA Navy. China's latest military white paper released in May put more emphasis on an 'open-seas protection' mission for China's naval forces, leading some to argue that Beijing is aiming for at least a 'four carrier navy'.
The other interesting development concerns the PLA Air Force. Earlier this month, China Daily reported that China's strategic bomber, the H-6K, had achieved a long-range precision strike capability. As the official said, the new capability will allow the main bomber of the PLAAF to now 'launch air-to-surface cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles, which means it can take out multiple targets on the ground or sea within one mission.' There are also statements from officials that the PLA Air Force has conducted long-range training exercises with the bombers within the first island chain. The 'K' precision-strike variant of the H-6 has been under development for some time; notably its engines have been significantly upgraded and its range has been extended to a reported 3500km radius.
The addition of the precision strike mission for the H-6K is interesting in the context of China's island reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea. The runway China is building on Fiery Cross Reef has the length to potentially land a H-6K, as well as other combat and surveillance aircraft.