South China Sea: Report says China’s next aircraft carrier likely nuclear powered; Beijing continues to flex naval might


China is building its fourth aircraft carrier as it seeks to boost its naval power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the vessel is “likely to be nuclear powered”, a new report revealed on Saturday, citing sources close to the country’s military.

Construction of the fourth ship, which has already been delayed for two years, resumed earlier this year.

The South China Morning Post quoted a person close to the Chinese navy as saying that shipbuilders “are keen on making a significant breakthrough” with the construction of the fourth carrier.

“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry,” the source is quoted to have told the Post.

Another unnamed source also told the publication that Chinese officials are studying a proposal “to use nuclear power for the fourth carrier”.

The person did not say if a final decision was made, but told the Post it would be “a very bold decision that is full of challenges”.

Currently, there are two Chinese aircraft carriers already operating and a third one that is expected to be launched this year but none of them have nuclear capability.

China had launched its first domestically made aircraft carrier in 2017, in a demonstration of the growing technical sophistication of its defence industries.

The 50,000-tonne carrier, known as Shandong, is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov-class design, with a ski jump-style deck for taking off and a conventional oil-fuelled steam turbine power plant.

The other vessel in operation is the 60,000-tonne Liaoning aircraft carrier, which was bought from Ukraine.

The third one, expected to be in operation this year, has an estimated displacement of about 85,000 tonnes, according to the Post report.

It was reported in 2017 that China was already building a vessel at a shipyard outside Shanghai that is expected to be closer in size to the US Navy’s nuclear-powered 100,000-tonne Nimitz-class ships, with flat flight decks and catapults to allow planes to launch with more bombs and fuel on board.

Aside from the two aircraft carriers in operation, China already has in its arsenal more than a dozen nuclear-powered submarines.

China is working to improve its carrier operations but has little experience compared with the United States, which has operated integrated carrier battle groups with multiple vessels for decades.

China claims almost all the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea already in dispute with neighbors, where it has established military outposts on artificial islands.

Over the past decade China has built up military installations on several disputed reefs and outcrops in the South China Sea to assert its claim over much of the area. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia are contigual countries to the sea and also have maritime claims to the sea.

That claim has been declared as without legal basis by the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2002. China refused to participate in the case and later dismissed the ruling as “null and void”.

Since the court ruling, tensions have been building up further, with the US and its allies increasing the number of its naval exercises and patrols in the South China Sea, asserting freedom of navigation in open seas, to the chagrin of Beijing.

The United States regularly accuses China of militarising the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbours who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves aside fishing.

The United States Department of Defense said in 2020 that Chinese test launches of ballistic missiles in the South China Sea were a threat to peace and security in the region.

Confirming reports at the time that China had launched as many as four ballistic missiles during military exercises around the Paracel Islands- Xisha Islands , Pentagon said the move called into question the country’s 2002 commitment to avoiding provocative activities in the disputed seas.

“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

“The PRC’s actions, including missile tests, further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea.” The PRC – or People’s Republic of China – is the country’s official name.

“Such exercises also violate PRC commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” the Pentagon statement added.

In December, the Shandong aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait on its way to routine drills in the South China Sea, just a day after a US warship passed through the same stretch of sea.

In January, Beijing also passed a law that for the first time explicitly allowed its coastguard to fire on foreign vessels.

The Coast Guard Law empowers it to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations or individuals at sea”.

Amid alarm among the countries surrounding the sea, China said the law was a “normal domestic” measure that was not aimed at any particular country.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in January reaffirmed the United States commitment to the support of Southeast Asian nations in a long-running dispute with China over sovereignty in the South China Sea.

The new top diplomat for the US made the commitment in a phone call with his Filipino counterpart, Teodoro Locsin, on Wednesday. Locsin had earlier lodged a formal diplomatic protest over Beijing’s decision to allow its coastguard, which is active in the disputed waters, to open fire on foreign vessels.

Blinken’s call to Locsin is also seen as part of a renewed commitment to the region under the new administration of US President Joe Biden.

In multiple calls and statements, he and his top security officials have underscored support for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all traditional allies of the US.

On Wednesday, Biden told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that his administration is committed to defending Japan, including the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.

State Department spokesman Ned Price has also warned China about menacing Taiwan after it repeatedly sent more than a dozen military fighters and bombers through the island’s air defence zone.

“We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity security and values in the Indo-Pacific region – and that includes deepening our ties with Democratic Taiwan,” Price said in a statement.

“Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.”

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