○ Military enthusiasts rushed to Dalian to get a close look at China's first domestically-produced aircraft carrier
○ There has been a debate on the future name of the ship, with Shandong, Hainan and Beijing the most popular choices
○ A third aircraft carrier that's larger and more capable is reportedly under construction in Shanghai
The Liaoning sails in open waters. Photo: Zhang Kai
China's first domestically-built aircraft carrier was not launched on Sunday, the anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), as some military fans hoped it would be. But these enthusiasts believe the day is approaching as they discovered that the shipyard where it is being built started to flood the drydock containing the carrier on Sunday.
"Fans captured pictures showing that the water is already touching the hull. Though it was not launched today, it will be in no more than a few days," Chen, 30, a naval enthusiast from Jinhua, East China's Zhejiang Province, told the Global Times.
He has been updating his Weibo account - which is called General Commander of the Liaoning and has over 320,000 followers - with news and pictures of the carrier.
"We have dreamed for decades of a domestically-built aircraft carrier. We don't mind waiting for a few more days," said Chen, who is also a moderator of a popular naval discussion forum online.
Many people rushed to the Dalian shipyard in Northeast China's Liaoning Province on Sunday after reading articles suggesting the launching ceremony for the Type 001A would be likely held that day.
Duan, a 20-year-old military fan working in Dalian, is one of them. "If it was launched on Sunday, it would be more meaningful. But it is excusable that it wasn't. Carrier construction is a huge project. Speed is always second to security," he told the Global Times.
Keeping an eye on the carrier has become an integral part of his life since he came to Dalian last year.
"I go to see it once a week. From a rusty hull and being covered with various cranes, vehicles and containers to a cleared deck, it finally started to look like it does today, which was quite exciting," Duan said.
To get a look at the ship, he regularly takes the city's light rail route which passes the shipyard. He gets a view of the ship for about 20 seconds each time.
Song, 16, a local high school student, also went to see the carrier on Sunday. "It's a big day. About 200 people gathered and waited for hours, wishing to witness the launch," he said.
"My family lived near the shipyard when I was in primary school, and I could always view the Varyag, [the Soviet-era carrier purchased from Ukraine, which was refitted and is now in service as the Liaoning] from an overpass," he said. "I'm thrilled we will soon have a domestically-produced one."
Speculation that the ship would be launched on April 23 - the 68th anniversary of the founding of the PLAN - first arose in late March when photos showing that scaffolding had been removed and red undercoat had been painted below the ship's waterline were posted online.
When asked about this at a regular press briefing on March 30, Wu Qian, spokesperson for the country's Ministry of National Defense responded that "it is being outfitted with equipment and the work is progressing smoothly. As for? further news, I believe we won't keep the public waiting for too long."
A distant view of China's first domestically-built aircraft carrier, which will soon be launched Photo: Courtesy of Blue Shark Team
The fans believe that the Type 001A will hit the water in a few days. The news that China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation Chairman Hu Wenming recently inspected the Dalian shipyard twice in one month made them feel even more certain.
"April 23rd or March 27 in the lunar calendar are not suitable days for launching due to the tides. I reckon that the ship will be tested on the water by the end of the month," Chen told the Global Times. The gravitational forces which contribute to the tides are exceptionally strong during the new moon and full moon [first and 15th day of every lunar month].
Chen established a team called Blue Shark in 2015 and has organized members living in several coastal cities that are in close proximity to PLAN bases to collect the latest news about naval operations. Anything to do with aircraft carriers is always the most eye-catching.
But they have their rules to prevent leaking secrets. "We are very cautious when releasing information," Chen said, explaining that they do not share high-definition pictures or information about core carrier parts, and delete any material which reveals such confidential details.
When the Global Times contacted Chen, he said he would talk only if the reporter first showed him her press card. He said it's their standard procedure when they are approached by strangers so as to guard against their information being used by spies.
First combat-ready carrier
Aircraft carriers have long been regarded as a symbol of a country's naval power. At present there are 23 aircraft carriers in service for 10 countries, 10 of which belong to the US, and four belong to Japan [although the Japanese vessels only carry helicopters], according to media reports.
The government hopes that China's new carrier will enhance the country's maritime strength and lift people's morale.
But military experts think that it will take three years for the Type 001A to be ready for combat after it is launched, as testing and outfitting is required.
Liu Zijun, a military commentator, told the Nanfang Daily that this time can be shortened if needed. He gave two reasons that this might happen. Firstly the relevant technology is fairly mature based on the navy's experience with the Liaoning. Secondly due to the international security situation, it may be necessary to bring both the carriers into service as soon as possible "so as to enact deterrence around the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea at the same time."
Construction of the Type 001A began in late 2013, one year after the Liaoning was delivered and commissioned to the PLAN. Since being deployed, the Liaoning has made dozens of scientific research, test and training trips.
It is classified as a training ship and serves as a training and test platform for the PLAN. Thus the Type 001A, which was based on the Liaoning, will become China's first combat-ready carrier.
Liang Fang, with the Department of Strategic Studies of the National Defense University of the PLA, said that although the new ship is similar to the Liaoning in appearance and displacement, its interior structure and equipment have seen significant upgrades, and its integrated operational capability will be hugely improved.
The Liaoning was originally designed as a cruiser equipped with heavy equipment such as anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine weapons. But the Type 001A was designed to more effectively use air power. Its compartments were designed to hold carrier-based aircraft. Its power system was also researched and developed in accordance with PLAN needs, Liang told China Central Television in a recent interview.
"I'm looking forward to its deployment. But crew management plays a decisive role in combat effectiveness. The navy had zero experience on how to drive and manage the carriers before," Duan said, adding that he hopes the carriers will become powerful weapons for the country's blue ocean strategy.
But military experts and fans agree that China still lags far behind the US in carrier technology. The Type 001A is conventionally powered, with a full-load displacement of 50,000 tons and ski-jump-style launch ramps. But the US's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, which has recently completed manufacturer's trials and is expected to be delivered this year, is nuclear powered and has a 100,000-ton displacement. Replacing older steam-powered launch systems, its electrical system can launch heavier aircraft and works more quickly.
What's in a name?
The future name of the new carrier has also aroused heated discussion.
Li Jie, a military expert, said that the country might do things differently this time. While the Liaoning was named on the day of its delivery, the new carrier might be named when it is transferred from the dry dock into the water.
Many media outlets have speculated that it might be called the "Shandong" as it may join the Liaoning and be anchored at the Qingdao carrier base in East China's Shandong Province.
However, according to an online survey conducted by ifeng.com in January, 38 percent of the more than 300,000 respondents said it should be called the "Taiwan," while 21 percent preferred to call it the "Beijing" and 14 percent chose the "Guangdong."
Zhang Rongmin, a blogger and commentator on Taiwan politics living in Zhangzhou, East China's Fujian Province, said the new vessel is unlikely to be named the Taiwan.
"The name Taiwan declares the spirit of 'one China,' but it can also be interpreted as liberating Taiwan. The current Taiwan government, which is building vessels themselves, may also name its self-made vessel the Taiwan. Then the unification struggle will become a formalistic game," Zhang told the Global Times.
He said China now has five major issues to address. They are the Xiongan New Area, the Taiwan question, boundary disputes between the Tibet Autonomous Region and India, the South China Sea disputes and the Korean peninsula situation.
He believes "Hainan" is a better name regarding the southern island province's importance to maritime issues.
"The Liaoning is already docked in the north. The country is now promoting the Belt and Road initiative. If the new ship is deployed in the South China Sea, it can guard trade routes and strategically confront India at sea."
Chen said he hopes the ship will be named the Beijing.
"Beijing is the capital, which can demonstrate the paramount significance of the carrier," Chen said. "I think we will eventually have five to six aircraft carriers. We can name them after the municipalities."
According to a blog posted on nationalinterest.org, the website of an American bi-monthly international affairs magazine, China is now building a third aircraft carrier in Shanghai that is likely to be larger and far more capable than the Type 001A or the Liaoning.