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Decoding China: Can Beijing become a naval power in Pacific?

Dang Yuan
March 11, 2024

China wants to modernize and bolster its navy. It's expanding its aircraft carrier fleet by building two nuclear-powered vessels, not only as a deterrent but also to displace the US military presence.

This handout photo taken and released by Japan's Ministry of Defense in April 2023 shows a fighter plane taking off from the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong in Pacific Ocean waters, south of Okinawa prefecture
The Chinese navy currently has two conventionally powered aircraft carriers in serviceImage: Japan's Ministry of Defense/AFP

Fears are on the rise over a looming military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

The People's Republic of China wants reunification with self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a Chinese province, even by force, if necessary.

Presenting his government's work report to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament, Premier Li Qiang reaffirmed Beijing's firm resolve to "resolutely advance the cause of China's reunification."

This is part of the government's "overall strategy," he emphasized.

The statement itself is not new, but the word "peaceful" — a term that was present in the declarations of previous years — was missing before "reunification."

From Beijing's standpoint, the source of the security threat in the region lies in the fact that the Republic of China, as Taiwan officially calls itself, receives security guarantees from the US. Five US aircraft carriers are currently deployed to the Pacific region, according to US media reports.

Chinese politicians are increasingly referring to "peace and security on both shores," a phrase which many experts believe is no longer just about the Taiwan Strait, but refers to the Pacific Ocean as a whole.

How China may allocate its planned defense increase of 7.2%

To control the contested waters, Beijing has been trying to bolster its still relatively weak navy.

The southernmost point in the South China Sea is located around 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from the Chinese mainland.

And Beijing is striving to maintain and strengthen its naval presence in the region — with the help of its aircraft carriers.

Two aircraft carriers in service, two more under construction

The Chinese navy currently has two aircraft carriers in service — the Liaoning and the Shandong.

The Soviet-built Liaoning was purchased by China from Ukraine in 1998 via a middleman from Macau for about $20 million (€18.3 million). The businessman had initially claimed to want to build a floating hotel and casino.

In 2012, however, the Liaoning was handed over to the Chinese navy after being refitted and converted into a functioning aircraft carrier.

The second carrier, the Shandong, is a domestically produced copy of the Liaoning. It entered service in 2019 and has since been mainly cruising in the South China Sea.

Neither of these two vessels is nuclear-powered; instead, they use conventional oil-fueled steam turbine power plants for propulsion. These carriers also use a ski-jump style platform for jets to take off and do not have a catapult system.

The third carrier — the Fujian, launched in 2022 — remains anchored at a shipyard in Shanghai as it undergoes outfitting and mooring trials.

Like the other two carriers, the Fujian is conventionally powered. It's expected to enter service in 2025.

In this aerial view, China's aircraft carrier, The Liaoning, of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) is followed by destroyers and frigates during a naval exercise in the western Pacific
The Liaoning was handed over to the Chinese navy in 2012 after being refitted and converted into a functioning aircraft carrierImage: Zhang Lei/HPIC/dpa/picture alliance

Speculation is rife that China is building a fourth aircraft carrier.

Yuan Huazhi, an admiral and political commissar of the Chinese navy, appeared to confirm the rumors on the sidelines of this year's gathering of the NPC.

"I am not aware of any technical difficulties regarding the fourth aircraft carrier," he said.

When asked whether China's newest carrier would be nuclear-powered, Yuan evasively said this "will soon be announced."

Two more nuclear-powered aircraft carriers?

Before the start of the NPC session, Hong Kong and Taiwanese media reported that work for the construction of two more nuclear-powered aircraft carriers was underway. Each of these vessels should be powered by two thorium molten salt reactors that generate energy through nuclear fission, it was reported.

"China wants to clearly show its strong ambition to defend its waters with a modern navy," said Wang Feng, editor of the Chinese-language newspaper China Times in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.

This is an effective deterrent tactic after a series of deadly maritime incidents with neighboring countries, he added.

But Yuan, the Chinese admiral, stuck to the official line. 

"We are building aircraft carriers, not to compare ourselves with the US, and certainly not to wage war with the US. We want to use them to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity."

How can Taiwan defend itself from China?

Rising military expenditure

China's rising defense budget reflects the country's growing military ambition. Chinese defense spending will climb to €215.5 billion this year, marking an increase of 7.2% compared to last year's, and accounting for about 1.2% of the nation's total economic output.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China ranks second worldwide in terms of military spending, behind only the United States.

The Chinese leadership has made strengthening the navy a key part of its defense strategy.

Military technologies have changed drastically since the end of World War II, said Charles Martin-Shields, a researcher at the German Development Institute. With nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, "a modern navy no longer needs island chains as supply bases for refueling in order to control the vast Pacific."

Lai Ching-te, who is critical of Beijing, is set to become the president of Taiwan in May, and this is seen by some observers as a reason behind the increasing military tensions in the region.

"In principle, neither China nor the US is interested in a military conflict," said Hanna Gers from the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Personally, I think economic blockades are more likely. But I also know that all possible scenarios are being discussed here."

For now, Chinese aircraft carriers are still cruising in their own waters.

But Yuan, the senior Chinese navy official, has already started hinting about the possibility of Chinese naval deployments to faraway places. "Aircraft carriers are being built for this," he said.

The crisis in the Middle East could provide a possible test case.

Attacks on civilian ships in the Red Sea by the Houthi militant group in Yemen have restricted commercial shipping in the vital waterway. "The trade routes through the Red Sea are of strategic importance for China's energy supply," said Wang. However, the Chinese military is not yet in a position to carry out defensive maritime security operations.

The situation offers another argument in favor of upgrading the navy: "After all, it's about state security."

"Decoding China" is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.

This article was originally written in German.