Eyes on Africa as China Builds its Third Aircraft Carrier

China also has been building a new pier at its first naval base at the Red Sea port of Djibouti that will be capable of supporting aircraft carriers.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
2021.08.04
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Eyes on Africa as China Builds  its Third Aircraft Carrier China's first domestically manufactured aircraft carrier, known as "Type 001A", during its first sea trial at sea., in an undated photo released May 18, 2018
AFP

China has been building its third aircraft carrier, a vessel that appears to be larger than the country’s older two aircraft carriers.

This is based on photos of the new carrier, which is currently under construction at shipyard on an island located to the northeast of Shanghai.

The carrier looks ready to launch soon, according to The Economist magazine.

The magazine also reports that China also has been building a new pier at its first naval base at the Red Sea port of Djibouti. The pier will be capable of supporting aircraft carriers.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was constructed from an aircraft carrier hull that was towed from Ukraine to China in 2001.  

After years of refits, the Liaoning was turned into a training ship in September, 2012, according to the website ChinaPower.

Andrew Erickson, a U.S.-based expert on naval affairs, said that “for some, the Liaoning was a symbol of China’s global power.”

“For others,” Erickson said, “it represented a significant step forward toward a more muscular and assertive Chinese navy.”

China second aircraft carrier was launched on April 26, 2017.

People's Liberation Army Navy sailors working on board China's first domestically manufactured aircraft carrier, during its first trial at sea, which began on May 13, 2018. Credit: AFP
People's Liberation Army Navy sailors working on board China's first domestically manufactured aircraft carrier, during its first trial at sea, which began on May 13, 2018. Credit: AFP
Djibouti in focus

Launching a new carrier is no simple task, according to Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., a senior fellow for imagery analysis at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International  Studies (CSIS).

“From an imagery analysis standpoint, the latest imagery of the Type 003 carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard shows that a significant amount of work still remains to be accomplished,” Bermudez said in an email message.

"For one thing, the engines need to be installed,” Bermudez said.” Even if launched tomorrow, this would not obviate the need for manufacturer’s acceptance trials, Navy acceptance trials, Navy shakedown cruises, and the training of new crew before the vessel becomes truly operational.”

Referring to the Chinese naval base in Djibouti, the U.S. Army Commander for Africa, Gen. Stephen Townsend, told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee recently that the Chinese Army was expanding its existing naval installation adjacent to a Chinese-owned commercial deep-water port and also seeking other military basing options elsewhere in Africa.

“Their first overseas military base, their only one, is in Africa, and they have just expanded that by adding a significant pier that can … support their aircraft carriers in the future. Around the continent they are looking for other basing opportunities,” Townsend told the committee.

The base, formally opened in 2017, was developed to support the Chinese anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden but has expanded to include capabilities to serve as a logistical resupply hub for its ships.

The base was opened in 2017 but most of its piers are still under construction.

China has planned to have nine piers at this base with four dedicated to its Navy, the publication India Today reported recently.

“The pier whose construction began in 2018 has now been completed with rails for heavy duty cranes on both sides,” said India Today.

US submarines

A report published in May by the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) from the contributor H.I. Sutton said that the new 1,120-foot pier was “just long enough to accommodate China’s new aircraft carriers, assault carriers or other large warships. It could easily accommodate four of China’s nuclear-powered attack submarines if required.”

The base is near the Bab el Mandeb, the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden and a major chokepoint for maritime traffic traveling toward the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.

The United States and France also have installations in the vicinity of the Chinese base. The U.S. Camp Lemonnier is an easy drive from the expanding Chinese base located near Djibouti.

And U.S. troops have complained of harassment from the Chinese, including lasers directed at U.S. aircraft.

Townsend told the committee the Chinese were looking at other places across Africa with the “intent to establish naval bases and air bases.”

While the base in Djibouti is one the most obvious sign of Chinese expansion on the continent, Townsend said that Beijing was growing its presence in Africa through civilian channels.

“China is of great concern. They are literally everywhere on the continent. They are placing a lot of bets down. They are spending a lot of money,” he said.

“They built a lot of critical infrastructure.”

But if it ever came to a conflict between China and the United States, which doesn’t seem likely at this point, the U.S. has submarines available that are capable of countering aircraft carriers.

The USS Ronald Reagan, a Japan-based U.S. aircraft carrier, has moved from the Pacific to the Middle East to support the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It joins another carrier, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which has been the region since early April.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding Executive Editor.

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