China has announced the launch of its first home-built aircraft carrier, and Twitter is now awash with images of the ceremonial event. When it eventually enters service after several years of fitting out, testing and crew training, it will be the second aircraft carrier in the PLA Navy inventory. The first, called Liaoning or CV-16, is a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel, and as predicted by Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow James Goldrick in January 2016, this new vessel resembles Liaoning in most respects:
That the first new-build carrier will be in most respects a copy of the Soviet designed Liaoning should be no surprise. This is China's only practicable course of action if it is to get another unit into service in good time.
The PLA Navy was able to extract eight truck loads of detailed plans of the Liaoning from the Ukrainian vendors. These will have to be the foundation of the present activity because China is now facing the same reality that has dogged the efforts of all the major navies of the last century. The greatest restraint on naval expansion in the industrial age has been neither budgets nor disarmament treaties. It has in fact been the lack of drafting expertise to translate the design concepts of naval architects into the detailed compartment-by-compartment drawings that allow the shipbuilders to do their work (arguably, this has been a key problem for Australia with the new Air Warfare Destroyers). The scale of the effort involved is demonstrated by the report that the Liaoning's documentation amounted to many tons of paper.
Although the PLA Navy is pursuing multiple paths of technology transfer from overseas, both legitimate and covert, its shipbuilders must recruit and train sufficient expert indigenous design staff in very large numbers at a time when the Chinese navy is seeking to introduce many different new classes: submarines, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, replenishment ships and light craft. In particular, the demands of the submarine force, both nuclear and conventional, must be a higher priority than the carrier force for the PLA Navy as a whole, and for the national leadership.
The Lowy Institute's Euan Graham assesses that the new carrier will bring incremental benefits to the PLA Navy. The largest design constraint on the new ship is that it persists with the so-called 'ski-jump' configuration of its predecessor. This 15 degree incline at the bow of the ship gives fighter aircraft just enough lift to launch off the short runway, but it is not enough to allow for the launch of heavier aircraft, and it may even restrict the amount of fuel and weapons which Chinese carrier-borne fighters can carry on missions. The US and France both use 'catapult' technology which flings aircraft off the ship at higher speed. China is working on that technology, and it will probably be introduced in the next carrier (apparently under construction since March 2015). That will be a step-change in capability rather than just an incremental improvement.
So what are China's carriers actually for? Well, first of all, it is important to note that these two ships are no match for America's carriers, and they were probably not built with the US Navy in mind. But if you exclude the US, China is by some measures already the most powerful naval force in the Asia Pacific, and two operational carriers would help cement that status (China is also building a massive new factory for building nuclear-powered submarines, arguably a more important program than the carriers). That gives Beijing not just boasting rights but also a useful operational advantage. In the South China Sea, for instance, China might use its carriers to enforce its boundary claims against smaller countries with relatively weak air and naval forces.
China's ambitions won't stop at two or three carriers, with some analysts predicting up to six will be built. That's several decades into the future, but by the time China's program reaches that stage, it's fair to assume its carriers will match America's in most respects. And although the US Navy would still have a numerical advantage (it currently operates 11 carriers), America has worldwide security obligations, and China does not.
China's carrier program is thus symbolic of the power shift in the Asia Pacific. Short of an economic or political crisis in China, this shift probably can't be stopped; it can only be managed. The response of regional military forces to China's naval shipbuilding program will offer an important indicator of how that management is taking place. The response we have seen so far, typical of weaker maritime powers, is to focus on anti-ship capabilities, particularly submarines but also high-speed anti-ship missiles. Not coincidentally, that is also the approach China has taken to countering the US Navy.