China’s new Fujian aircraft carrier could challenge the US and Australian Navy

China launched the first sea trials for the nation’s most advanced aircraft carrier, which President Xi Jinping hopes will form the basis of his plan to transform his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class fighting force.

The start of maritime tests by the Chinese navy this morning came nearly two years after the mammoth vessel, named the Fujian, was first unveiled in June 2022.

Entirely designed and built domestically, the Fujian is considerably larger and more advanced than China’s two existing aircraft carriers – the Shandong, commissioned in late 2019 and based on the Liaoning, a Soviet-era carrier which China bought second-hand from Ukraine.

Displacing some 80,000 tonnes of water and measuring a whopping 1036 feet (316 metres) in length, the gargantuan craft features a full-length flight deck with an advanced catapult-launch system for jets – and, in a not-so-subtle gesture, takes its name from the Chinese province opposite democratically governed Taiwan.

Able to carry up to 40 fighter jets – plus anti-submarine helicopters, drones and other transport – it is cast as a rival to the USS Gerald Ford, the world’s most advanced aircraft carrier and the pride of America’s Navy. 

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Displacing some 80,000 tonnes of water and measuring a whopping 1036 feet (316 metres) in length, the gargantuan craft features a full-length flight deck with an advanced catapult-launch system for jets

Displacing some 80,000 tonnes of water and measuring a whopping 1036 feet (316 metres) in length, the gargantuan craft features a full-length flight deck with an advanced catapult-launch system for jets

Ahead of its first sea test today, the Fujian was stationed at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard, undergoing stationary tests and adjustments.

China Daily quoted the PLA Navy (PLAN) as saying the carrier was ‘among the most important military hardware’ the country is developing, adding that the Fujian’s test run at sea was intended to assess the ‘reliability and stability of the carrier’s propulsion and electric power systems.’

China’s shipbuilders discounted nuclear power as a means of propulsion, meaning the Fujian will be slower and have a smaller range than the US’ Ford-class aircraft carrier.

But this decision also means the Fujian was cheaper, easier and faster to build, and is still equipped with three advanced electromagnetic catapults that can launch fully fuelled and armed aircraft – technology that is currently only in use on a handful of US vessels and France’s lone carrier.

The Fujian has a much greater capacity than Paris’ Charles De Gaulle and will be complemented by a horde of China’s J-15B fighter jets along with its fearsome fifth-generation aircraft – the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang FC-31 stealth platforms.

It was described by Alexander Neill, an expert on the Chinese military at the Pacific Forum, as Beijing’s first proper carrier that builds upon the previous two platforms which constituted an ‘experiment’ in carrier operations.

‘The Liaoning helped the Chinese navy get into aircraft carrier operating mode for the first time… The Shandong was an experiment in gearing up the shipbuilding industry to supply the PLA Navy with these kinds of ships.

‘Now, once they have the Fujian in service, they will be experimenting with carrier operations at scale and at pace,’ he told Global Defense Corp.

The sea trials are a final step before the aircraft carrier is put into service by China’s navy, a process that is expected to take up to a year. The Shandong conducted nine sea tests before it was commissioned.

But once all three are operating in a military capacity, China will boast the second-largest aircraft-carrying fleet in the world behind the US – and the fourth vessel, rumoured to be a nuclear-powered variant – is already under development.

The launch of the Fujian comes as China continues to stretch its year-and-a-half-long buying spree of gold, stocking up on the precious metal considered a stable, safe investment.

A World Gold Council report said China now holds a stunning 2,262 tonnes of gold worth roughly $170.4 billion (£135 billion) – and Beijing in the meantime has offloaded more than $400 billion worth of US Treasury bonds since 2021.

There is also speculation that China holds significantly more gold reserves than the officially announced total. 

The concerted effort to invest in the historically stable asset while dropping huge amounts of US debt has led analysts to suggest China is seeking to reduce its dependency on the American dollar, which in turn would mitigate the impact of any Western-imposed economic sanctions.

Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank, said of China’s gold strategy: ‘The relentless purchases and the sheer quantity are clear signs that this is a political project which is prioritised by the leadership in Beijing because of what they see is a looming confrontation with the United States.

‘Of course it’s connected also to plans for a military invasion of Taiwan,’ reported The Telegraph.

He went on to speculate that China’s move to diversify its investments and dump US debt was sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting torrent of Western sanctions levied against Moscow.

More than $300 billion worth of Russian assets were frozen in Europe and the US – a huge financial blow as the Kremlin seeks to finance its ongoing war.

John Reade, chief market strategist at the World Gold Council, said the sanctions against Russia’s central bank sparked a flurry of gold-buying amid non-Western aligned countries and ’caused many non-aligned central banks to reconsider where they should hold their international reserves’.

China’s relationship with the West, particularly its grand rival the United States, is rocky to say the least, and China’s threatening posture towards Taiwan is just one of many pinch points.

There have long been tensions between Beijing and Taipei but these have escalated considerably in recent years, with President Xi openly stating his desire to ‘reunify’ the island with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Chinese military aircraft routinely embark on threatening sorties toward the island, and on Saturday sent almost two dozen aircraft over the Taiwan Strait with some crossing the sensitive median line separating the two territories.

The line once served as an unofficial border between the two sides over which neither sides’ military crossed, but China says it does not recognise the line’s existence. Besides China’s consistently threatening posture toward Taiwan, the test also comes at a time of escalating tensions in the South China Sea between Beijing’s vessels and other territories allied to the US.

The Philippines this week accused Chinese coast guard ships of damaging its fishing vessels with high-powered water cannons on the Scarborough Shoal.

The chain of reefs sits inside Manila’s 200-nautical-mile (370km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but Beijing claims it as sovereign territory along with 90% of the South China Sea. An international tribunal invalidated China’s claim in 2016, but Beijing does not recognise the ruling.

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