China’s third aircraft carrier is its most advanced yet

Domestic News

‘Fujian,’ China’s new aircraft carrier, is fitted with cutting-edge technology like electromagnetic catapults. It’s a milestone for the country’s naval forces, as Beijing pushes to modernize its military by 2035.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

On June 17, China launched its third and most advanced aircraft carrier: The 80,000-ton behemoth was christened with a bottle of champagne amid plumes of colorful smoke, multicolored streamers, and water jets before mooring at its pier in China State Shipbuilding’s Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, in celebration of a milestone in the country’s ambitions to modernize its military.

The Fujian (福建舰 Fújiàn Jiàn) is the first aircraft carrier that was both designed and built in China. Named after the country’s southeastern coastal province that is right opposite Taiwan, the Type 003 class ship is fitted with cutting-edge technology, such as a CATOBAR system and electromagnetic catapults — a sign that China’s military technology is catching up with the United States.

  • The Fujian will join China’s first two carriers, which are also named after provinces: the Shandong, which was commissioned in late 2019, and the Liaoning, a refurbished ex-Soviet ship, which China bought secondhand from Ukraine in 1998.
  • The electromagnetic catapults are a significant improvement to the launching mechanisms used on China’s first two carriers — which are equipped with less sophisticated ski-jumps that impose heavy constraints on the size of the aircraft it can launch — and on a par with the very latest U.S. technology that is only aboard the new USS Gerald Ford.
  • Though all three carriers are considered less advanced than most of the nuclear-powered U.S. fleet, they also represent big steps forward for China’s military, which for decades has been focused on land warfare. Some, however, have claimed that China will continue to lag behind the U.S. due to limitations from its naval propulsion systems.
  • The new carrier’s major weakness is that it is powered by diesel, rather than a nuclear reactor, which imposes limits on its range.

China’s military spending has grown for 27 consecutive years, which has only stepped up pace since Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 outlined the country’s goal to “complete national defense and military modernization by 2035” following the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress in 2017.

  • This year, China is set to hit its fastest growth in defense spending since 2019, rising by 7.1% to 1.45 trillion yuan ($230.16 billion) this year and faster than the increase of 6.8% in 2021 and 6.6% in 2020, according to the Ministry of Finance (though unofficial estimates tend to vary). In comparison, the total U.S. spent on its defense budget for 2022 was just under $770 billion, up 2% from last year.
  • Though China is the second largest in the world in military spending, behind the U.S., China’s budget is closely linked to its economic development: China’s military spending as a percentage of GDP hovered at only 1.2% in 2021, well below the global average of 2.2% and well below the U.S.’s amount of 3.7%.
  • China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been updating its forces for over a decade to become a “blue water” powerhouse: PLAN aims to have six carriers by 2035, compared with the U.S. Navy’s fleet of 11 vessels.
  • SupChina reported this June that China’s military industry is booming, after two subsidiaries of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-owned defense contractor and supplier of fighter jets to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), announced a merger via a share swap deal.

The launch of the new aircraft has stoked already-high geopolitical tensions with the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly amid concerns over Beijing’s sovereignty claims on Taiwan, and reports of military bases in Cambodia in the Pacific Islands.

Nadya Yeh