It is the most visible symbol of China’s rising military power.
The giant, grey hulk of China’s newest warship, 60,000 tonnes of steel, sits at a dockside in the port of Dalian, almost ready to set sail.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been reluctant to say anything about its first aircraft carrier as it has not yet entered service. But it must be the military’s worst-kept secret. It is there for all to see, somewhat incongruously, right behind Dalian’s Ikea superstore.
The huge carrier has been years in the making, and it is an unmistakeable sign of China’s expanding military and its desire to project Chinese power further beyond its borders than ever before.
“An aircraft carrier is a symbol of the power of your navy,” says General Xu Guangyu, who used to serve in the PLA’s headquarters and is now retired.
“China should at least be on the same level as other permanent members of the UN Security Council who have carriers.”
Gen Xu now advises China’s government on its military modernisation programme. Seven nations currently operate carriers – it used to be eight, but the UK has just withdrawn its last one from service and will have to wait several years for a new one to be built.
“It’s also a symbol of deterrence,” adds Gen Xu, “It’s like saying, ‘Don’t mess with me. Don’t think you can bully me.’ So it’s normal for us to want a carrier. I actually think it’s strange if China doesn’t have one.”
Dalian is not just a major naval base, it is a major commercial port too. Its docks curve around a huge bay. There is an oil refinery, quays for cargo, and the shipyards where giant cranes tower over the hulls of massive container vessels and tankers under construction.
“The development of our armed forces is connected with the development of our economy,” says Gen Xu.
“In energy supplies and trade we now have interests that span the globe. There are vital shipping routes in Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa, and both sides of the Pacific that we need to protect. So our military strength needs to match the range of our economic and diplomatic activity.”
The PLA is focusing on both the navy and the air force in its modernisation, having identified them as relatively weak. When it is launched, the carrier will mark a significant leap forward for China’s navy.
Watching all this closely is the United States. For more than half a century, since the end of World War II, the US Navy has operated its carrier battle fleets unchallenged in Asia and the Pacific. The US has 11 carriers of its own.
The US and China view each other’s military programmes with suspicion. Many in the PLA believe America is trying to encircle it and prevent its rise.
America says China’s military developments are opaque and shrouded in secrecy, its real intentions unclear.
“For the longest time China denied that they were going to pursue an aircraft carrier navy even trying to get the world to believe that the purchase of the first aircraft carrier from Ukraine was all about creating a new casino in one of their harbours,” says Rick Fisher, a senior analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a think tank in Virginia, US.
“[It] is going to have aircraft comparable in capability to the recent fighters on American fighter decks in about two to three years time.”
Shift of power
Some observers believe China wants to build up to four carriers of its own.
Mr Fisher, who has spent 20 years studying China’s military, says it has big ambitions.
“The aircraft carrier is part of China’s fulfilment of its 2004 historic mission that the People’s Liberation Army will increasingly defend the Communist Party’s interests outside of China,” he says.
“By the 2020s China wants a military that will be globally deployable and will be able to challenge American interests where they need to be challenged.”
Last month the visit of Chen Bingde, the Chief of the General Staff of the PLA, to the Pentagon was trumpeted as an effort to improve long-strained military relations between the US and China.
US and Chinese military bands played together as Gen Chen was hosted in America.
He tried to allay American fears by saying China would never seek to match US military power. China, he said, is way behind America.
“This visit to America, I saw America’s military power, I feel stunned, not only do we have no ability to challenge America, but also the American warships and aircraft, America’s strategy, it’s a real deterrent for us.”
China’s military is generally believed to be 20 years behind America’s in its development. But in its rapid expansion, China is focusing on weapons designed to blunt US military power.
The PLA has invested heavily in submarines. It is believed to be close to deploying the world’s first “carrier-killer” ballistic missile, designed to sink aircraft carriers while they are manoeuvring at sea up to 1,500km (930 miles) offshore, and it is building its own stealth fighter aircraft along with advanced carrier-based aircraft built from Russian designs.
All of these can target US bases, US ships and US carriers in Asia. They will make it much more dangerous for US carrier fleets to operate close to China’s coast, pushing them out further offshore.
In any future conflict they could make it much harder for the US to operate as freely as it would like. That in turn opens up more room for China to flex its own military muscles in Asia.
Having an aircraft carrier will then enable China to project power further than it has before. So looking on with concern are Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, who all have territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.
And Taiwan, Korea and Japan that look to the US for their security may start to question how much America can really protect them in future. This may, one day, undermine US security guarantees and its influence in the region.
There is much work to do before China’s aircraft carriers become a potent force. But, sitting in the port in Dalian, the carrier is a clear sign of China’s naval ambitions and the shift of power that is likely to bring.