China's second aircraft carrier, and its first to be domestically made, was launched on Wednesday in Dalian, Liaoning Province.
Military experts say aircraft carriers play a special role in countries' strategic approaches to the Asia-Pacific region. China's new carrier, the Type 001A, is another milestone in its naval modernization. And it may bring about an ever-expanding number of frigates, destroyers and submarines, to form carrier strike groups that China says will enable its navy to better protect the country's interests at sea.
"The 001A carrier has a smaller island, provides more space for the flight deck and hangar storage. The internal conditions have been converted, and the electromagnetic capabilities have been improved," said Yin Xiaoyang, research fellow at the China Poly Defense Research Center.
The launch of China's first indigenous carrier is only the beginning of its long journey into service. It will be taking sea trials for one or two years.
From outside appearances, the new carrier is not very different from the first such vessel, the Liaoning – it is just a bit larger. But it is smaller than any carrier currently operated by the United States, and the engine is conventional rather than nuclear-powered, Yin said.
China's second carrier still uses a ski-jump system, a short take-off and an arrested recovery method of launching. This limitation could encourage China to further pursue the development of catapults to launch jets in the future.
If the Liaoning is mainly for training, then this newly-built carrier may focus on combat capabilities. Despite the improvements to many of the carrier's functions, it still has a long way to go to catch up with the world's most advanced, like the US Nimitz-class super carriers, which are nuclear powered, and can accommodate more fighters on board.
China is increasingly integrated with the world, and its foreign trade volume through sea routes has also been on a steady rise. China's Maritime Silk Road initiative and its growing responsibilities in fighting piracy and terrorism on the open seas have all raised new requirements for naval transformation.
Also, given China's territorial disputes with other countries, building a stronger maritime force is a logical decision. Carrier building is only part of the naval modernization. There is ongoing reform throughout the whole army.
For example, the navy used to be separated into East, South and North Sea Fleets based on geographic areas. But it has now been refocused more on integration and mission completion.
The last decade has seen a major shift for China's navy, from coastal defense to taking on greater responsibilities in the deep sea. Cao Weidong from the Naval Research Institute of the PLA Navy, said that China's development is increasingly dependent on the sea, and the country is more concerned about the safety of its sea lanes. "The navy needs not only offshore defense capabilities, but also defense operational capabilities in the ocean," according to Cao.
Chinese experts believe more carriers are a symbol of a stronger navy and that China has a realistic hope of becoming a maritime power.
The newly-launched carrier reveals the big strides in China's military transformation, but it will take time to form real capability to achieve the goals set.