Photo/IllutrationChina’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, Shandong, launches from a dock in Dalian in April 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

BEIJING--Shandong, China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, officially entered service Dec. 17 as a major prong in Chinese President Xi Jinping's strategy to establish a world-class naval force in the fractious South China Sea.

Xi, who also heads the Central Military Commission, attended the commissioning ceremony held at a naval port in Sanya in southern China's Hainan Province, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Xi is anxious to improve efficiency in military operations while closing the gap in terms of strength of maritime forces with the United States, which operates 11 aircraft carriers, all nuclear-powered.

The conventionally powered Shandong measures 315 meters long and 75 meters wide, with a displacement of about 50,000 tons, according to the past announcements by China and domestic news media reports.

A certificate to formally mark the commissioning of the carrier was handed to the captain during the ceremony joined by 5,000 attendees, according to China's defense ministry.

It is believed that the Chinese Navy will deploy the carrier mainly in the South China Sea, where China is engaged in disputes with neighbors over territorial rights involving reefs and other outcrops.

U.S. forces also prowl the area so as not to give China the upper hand, having issued repeated warnings in the past.

The official deployment of Shandong in Sanya, which faces the South China Sea, reflects China's determination to realize naval supremacy and protect its marine interests.

China’s first-ever aircraft carrier is Liaoning, an upgraded Soviet Navy ship commissioned in 2012.

Shandong, China’s second aircraft carrier, was modeled on Liaoning.

Work on Shandong started in 2013, and it was launched in 2017. It had been undergoing sea trials since then.

With a wider deck area, the ship can load 36 carrier-borne aircraft, compared with 24 on Liaoning.

However, the flight deck lacks a catapult powered by pressurized steam to thrust aircraft off the ship. U.S. and other forces employ the system as it allows heavy planes to take off more easily.

Instead, Shandong uses a "ski-jump method," which requires an aircraft to taxi on its own and take off from an upward slope at the end of the flight deck.

The method offsets the slow initial velocity, but limits an aircraft's capacity to carry a lot of fuel and weapons.

A Chinese military source said Shandong dramatically enhances China's "ability to respond to vessels belonging to the United States and others and approach to the South China Sea."

China has plans to build at least two more carriers, and is also accelerating construction of a destroyer and escort ship to create a carrier strike group.

“By around 2025, China will establish military superiority in areas of the Western Pacific close to Guam and Saipan,” a Chinese military source said. "This will enable China to prevent possible strikes by the United States in the event of an emergency in Taiwan."

Work is apparently proceeding in Shanghai on China’s second domestically built aircraft carrier. The vessel is believed to be in the 78,000-ton class, slightly larger than Shandong.

The carrier's flight deck is expected to be fitted with a catapult, though it will likely be steam jet driven, rather than an electromagnetic one that requires more power.

It is believed that China is seeking eventually to have four or so aircraft carriers in operation.

However, Hong Kong daily The South China Morning Post reported in November that China's plan to construct a fifth aircraft carrier had been halted due to technical problems.

China is also rumored to be planning to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

However, a Chinese military source said: "Even U.S. forces have a difficult time operating nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. There are challenges in terms of costs, and China's plan has not moved forward."

(This article was written by Daisuke Nishimura and Takashi Funakoshi, both correspondents.)