[HONG KONG] A report that China may be ready to launch its first domestically made aircraft carrier by the end of the year is credible, naval experts said, though the warship isn't likely to enter service for four years.
The non-nuclear-powered carrier, known as type 001A, will be launched on Dec 26 to mark the 122nd birthday of Mao Zedong, according to a report in the Hong Kong-based Chinese language newspaper Ming Pao, which didn't cite sources.
The carrier would take several years before entering service, the paper said, suggesting Oct 1, 2019 - the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China - as a potential date.
China has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of an aircraft carrier-building programme, though the Ministry of National Defense website carries an article by China Newsweek speculating that the country wants three. China Newsweek is a current affairs magazine owned by the official China News Service and is unrelated to the US magazine.
In February, the government in Changzhou, in eastern Jiangsu province, fueled speculation about progress in the construction of the carrier when it posted on social media that a local company had won a contract to supply electrical cabling for the ship. The post was deleted within hours, along with a similar report in a local newspaper.
"Based on these circumstantial reports, I'll deem the claim by Ming Pao as quite reliable," said Collin Koh Swee Lean, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"Assuming the carrier is launched on Dec 26 this year, and fitted out subsequently before entering into a series of harbour and sea trials, the carrier should be ready for service by 2020."
China keeps its carrier programme secret, partly to allay concerns about its growing naval might and ability to test the dominance of the US Navy, which has upheld Asian maritime security since World War II. The Pentagon said last week that a Chinese nuclear submarine designed to carry missiles that could hit the US was likely to deploy before year's end.
Previous Launches The Ming Pao article cited other launches that took place on dates of significance for the Communist Party. China launched its first nuclear-powered submarine, the Changzheng-1, in 1970 on Mao's birthday. Three of China's four Han-class Type 091 submarines were also launched on Dec. 26.
China already has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, built from a Ukrainian hull and commissioned into the People's Liberation Army Navy in 2012.
The Pentagon said in May that China is pursuing an indigenous aircraft carrier program and "could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years." Koh said another clue that an indigenous carrier is under construction was the start of the serial production of the carrier-based J-15 jet fighter, which would be destined for the Liaoning and other carriers. IHS Jane's reported last year that mass production of the fighter was gathering pace.
Whether China would continue its carrier-building program was an open question because of the development of carrier- killer missiles, according to Malcolm Davis, an assistant professor of China-Western relations at Bond University on Australia's Gold Coast.
"The Type 001A, may very well be launched in December, and that's important, but the whole carrier question should not be overplayed," Davis said. "The Chinese currently dominate in the anti-ship missile field." He cited the 3,000km range DF-26 ballistic missile, as well as the 1,750km range DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. Both "carrier killers" were displayed during China's Sept 3 military parade in Beijing.
"China is developing very sophisticated anti-ship capabilities, and the US is increasingly at risk of being out- matched," Mr Davis said. The US was also developing a long-range, anti-ship missile, though it would take time to perfect, he said.
"That means that as China invests in new aircraft carriers, they too will eventually face the prospect that these ships will become more vulnerable to strike warfare," Mr Davis said. "The US ships are vulnerable now and in coming years, but by the middle of the next decade, so will the Chinese ships, including their carriers."
In the future, aircraft carriers may become less important than quieter submarines and more-sophisticated surface warships, both with long-range anti-ship missiles and support from land- based, precision missiles deployed by PLA Second Artillery Force, Mr Davis said.