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Aircraft Carriers with Chinese Characteristics

Wait, is the latest offering China’s first or second carrier?

China just launched its latest aircraft carrier—its second. If you didn’t notice, that’s probably because the vessel won’t be commissioned until 2020; indeed it hasn’t even received a name yet, though rumors indicate that maybe it will be called the Shandong.

First a quick clarification—launching means it’s seaworthy, but some of the finer electronic gear, like radar and so on, will still need testing and work done. When it is commissioned, a ship is actually handed over to the operator—in this case, the PLA Navy—and it’s ready to go.

Until then, the carrier is being referred to as the Type 001A. But that doesn’t sound like the number two aircraft carrier, so what gives?

Astute readers will remember that China already has one aircraft carrier—the Liaoning. But it’s not clear as to whether we should really call the Liaoning China’s first aircraft carrier, because it was constructed from an incomplete vessel towed from Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, work on the 55,000-ton carrier, known as the Varyag at the time, was halted. After being bought, fixed up, then rebranded as the Liaoning, Chinese manufacturers learned a lot about carrier design along the way.

Reportedly, the Chinese navy had been initially interested in buying the Varyag, then rusting in a Mykolaiv shipyard, but was wary of alarming the West at a time when the country was courting foreign investment. In 1996, the PLA Navy reportedly approached an intermediary to get the ball rolling—businessman and former military basketball player Xu Zengping.

The military was conducting a “rogue acquisition,” according to the policy magazine the National Interest, which even described the whole “super sneaky” saga as a “comedy.”  Xu was to buy the Varyag using his own money, claiming it would end up as a floating casino, then the PLAN would later take it off his hands at the right time—but not before political wrangling resulted in the powerless vessel being stranded in the Black Sea for 500 days. For a while, Xu even contemplated sinking the massive vessel so it didn’t fall into other countries’ hands.

The ex-ball player triumphed over all those problems, but still got screwed.

According to a long report in the South China Morning Post, by 2015 Xu still hadn’t received payment for the $120 million he spent acquiring and towing the ship, despite being nearly bankrupted and forced to sell his home. Apparently, many of the officials who first approached Xu died or have been jailed, and the people left behind want “receipts” he doesn’t have.


Anyway, China can think of the Liaoning as a functional aircraft carrier, albeit one that was a prototype Russian-Chinese hybrid. The Type 001A, however, is China’s first all home-made aircraft carrier, and the designers no doubt made use of the knowledge they learned from working on the Liaoning to design the Type 001A.

Both aircraft carriers are reportedly of a pretty similar design, but the Type 001A is slightly smaller. Despite this, it is believed it will be able to handle more aircraft. For context, the US completed its first aircraft carrier in 1922, currently has 10 Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers, and three carriers of the new Gerald Ford class commissioned and on the way.


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David Dawson is the former deputy editor of The World of Chinese.

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