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Huge ship components spotted at the Dalian shipyard in Liaoning province prompted speculation the shipbuilder had begun building a next-generation Type 002 aircraft carrier. Photo: Handout

Why China’s not building next aircraft carrier just yet

Pictures of huge ship components posted online prompted speculation construction was under way

Construction of China’s next-generation Type 002 aircraft carrier has not yet started, according to sources familiar with the project.

Military experts told the South China Morning Post Beijing was still studying how to build the steam-catapult-equipped Type 002 safely and reliably.

Recent pictures posted online by military enthusiasts showing some huge ship components at the Dalian shipyard in Liaoning province prompted speculation the shipbuilder, which launched the country’s first domestically built carrier, the Type 001A, on April 26, had begun building a Type 002 carrier.

Zhou Chenming of the Knowfar Institute for Strategic and Defence Studies said the components could possible be parts of a warship, but it was not the Type 002.

“The Type 002 project is not decided yet ... it doesn’t make sense that all aircraft carriers will be built by one shipbuilder, according to China’s defence industry traditions,” Zhou said.

“The Beijing leadership always encourages two or three weapons manufacturers to compete with each other, just like the healthy competition between Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation in producing warplanes.”

The Dalian shipyard refitted the hull of a semi-completed Soviet carrier, the Varyag, which Beijing bought from a Ukrainian shipyard in 1998, turning it into China’s first aircraft ­carrier, the Liaoning, which was put into commission with the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012.

Mystery ship components at the Dalian shipyard in Liaoning province. Photo: Handout

A video posted online in December showed Professor Jin Yinan, a former director of the strategic research institute at the PLA’s National Defence University, telling a forum that construction of the first Type 002 carrier had started at the Jiangnan Changxingdao shipyard in Shanghai in March 2015.

But another source close to the military said there were no signs the Jiangnan shipyard was building the giant ship.

“It’s make sense that Jiangnan shipyard will win the contract, but we could at least expect to see some components or even a hull in the shipyard if it started construction more than two years ago,” the source, who requested anonymity, said. “However, we can’t see anything so far. The shipyard is empty. It’s impossible to hide such a huge ship.”

Zhou said there was still debate over whether the Type 002 would be conventionally or nuclear powered.

“The decision will be made by President Xi Jinping, who also chairs the powerful Central Military Commission, as the aircraft carrier project deals with a strategic weapon related to China’s long-term, comprehensive defence planing,” he said. “There are several competitive tenders as several Chinese shipbuilders are capable of building a warship of up to 80,000 tonnes. Everyone wants to bid because an aircraft carrier project worth hundreds of billions of yuan can boost local GDP growth.”

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the leadership had made safety a priority because the Type 002 would be the first Chinese aircraft carrier to use a steam catapult launching system, and there was “no need to play catch up or meet any anniversaries”.

“Installation of steam catapult systems on a flight deck is more complicated than building the ski ramp variant like the Liaoning and Type 001A,” Li said, adding that China’s successful land-based tests of the steam catapult system were only part of the answer.

“Steam catapult testing on land is so different from ship operation. On land, it’s an independent operation, but once you fit the steamers on a ship, you need to make sure the catapult can function smoothly after integrating with other systems and components in a very limited space.”

China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, was launched in Dalian on April 26. Photo: Reuters

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the huge vessel components at the Dalian shipyard could be parts for China’s biggest amphibious assault vessel, the Type 075 landing helicopter dock, which was similar in size to America’s Wasp-class vessels, with a displacement of 40,000 tonnes.

The military source said the Type 075 was being built by Shanghai-based Hudong Zhonghua Shipbuilding Company, a subsidiary of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, and it was possible that Dalian had been given a share of the construction work.

“China plans to build at least four Type 075 amphibious vessels. It’s make sense that both Dalian and Hudong are building the same ships,” the source said, adding that Dalian and Jiangnan had worked together on China’s Type 055 destroyer in recent years.

The Type 075 could carry vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) jet fighters and military experts said it would also give China’s navy the ability to launch various types of helicopters to attack naval vessels, enemy ground forces or submarines in the East China or South China seas.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Next PLA carrier still on drawing board