China is building its fourth aircraft carrier as it seeks to bolster naval power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the ship is “likely to be nuclear powered,” a new report revealed on Saturday, citing sources close to the country’s army.
The South China Morning Post quoted a person close to the Chinese Navy as saying that shipbuilders “want to make a significant breakthrough” with the construction of the fourth carrier.
“It will be a technological leap for the shipbuilding industry,” the source told the Post.
Another anonymous source also told the publication that Chinese authorities are considering a proposal to “use nuclear power for the fourth carrier.”
The person did not say if a final decision had been made, but told the Post that it would be “a very bold and challenging decision.”
Construction of the fourth ship, already delayed by two years, resumed earlier this year.
Currently, two Chinese aircraft carriers are already in service and a third is expected to launch this year – neither has nuclear capability.
A growing naval arsenal
It wasn’t until 2017 that China launched its first nationally-made aircraft carrier, demonstrating the growing technical sophistication of its defense industries.
The 50,000-ton transporter, known as the Shandong, is based on the Soviet Kuznetsov-class design, with a ski-jump-style bridge for take-off and a conventional oil-fired steam turbine power plant.
The other vessel in service is the 60,000-ton aircraft carrier Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine.
The third, which should be operational 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 ship at a shipyard outside Shanghai, which is expected to be closer to the size of the US Navy’s 100,000-ton nuclear-powered Nimitz-class ships, with decks of ‘take-off dishes and catapults to allow launch planes with more bombs and fuel on board.
In addition to the two aircraft carriers in service, China already has in its arsenal more than ten nuclear-powered submarines.
China is striving to perfect its transport operations but has little experience compared to the United States, which has operated integrated battle groups with several ships for decades.
China claims almost all of the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, where it has established military outposts on man-made islands.
This claim was declared without legal basis by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague. China refused to participate in the case and subsequently dismissed the decision as “null and void.”
Since the court ruling, tensions have intensified, with the United States and its allies increasing the number of their exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea, asserting freedom of navigation on the high seas, much to Beijing’s dismay.
The United States regularly accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate its Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its vast oil and gas reserves.
In response, China has also started carrying out more military exercises and patrols.
In December, the aircraft carrier Shandong crossed the Taiwan Strait on its way to routine exercises in the South China Sea, just a day after a US warship crossed the same stretch of sea.
In January, Beijing also passed a law that, for the first time, explicitly allowed its coastguards to shoot at foreign ships.
The Coast Guard Act authorizes it to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction are unlawfully infringed by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”
Amid alarm among countries surrounding the sea, China said the law was a “normal national” measure that did not target any particular country.