The Emerging World-class Navy: How China Acquired Its First Aircraft Carrier

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is increasingly making its presence felt regionally and globally. The China-Solomon Islands security pact signed in April 2022 opens the possibility for Chinese maritime security vessels to operate deep in the Pacific. In May, a Chinese surveillance ship was spotted in the Indian Ocean near the West Australian coast, which then Defence Minister Peter Dutton described as ‘an act of aggression’. On 17 June 2022, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched its third aircraft carrier, the Fujian 福建舰, named after the coastal province directly opposite Taiwan. This was the first aircraft carrier to be fully designed in China. Compared to the previous two, the Fujian has a larger displacement, approximately 85,000 tonnes, and is fitted with advanced technologies such as the electromagnetic catapult system for launching aircraft, putting it almost on par technologically with the carriers of the United States.

The launch of the Fujian was a defining moment for the PLAN, marking its rise as a world-class navy. The story of how the PLAN acquired its first aircraft carrier — a second-hand Soviet ship bought from Ukraine — is filled with plot twists worthy of a good spy novel.

Admiral Liu Huaqing’s Vision

Liu Huaqing 刘华清 (1916-2011), who served as Navy Commander-in-Chief from 1982 to 1988, was the first to articulate the dream of a Chinese-built aircraft carrier. During his term in office, Liu laid down two fundamental strategies for the PLAN: ‘near sea active defence’ 近海防御 and the development of a Chinese aircraft carrier. A ‘near sea active defence’ shifted the PRC’s geostrategic focus from land borders and coastlines to the maritime domain. It emphasised defence against immediate maritime threats, especially offshore territorial disputes.[1] The doctrine remains influential, cited in the most recent National Defence White Paper, in 2019.

Liu stipulated that China should build an aircraft carrier by 2000. He saw this as necessary to manage security in the Taiwan Strait, assert Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly Islands (which are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei), and generally safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests.[2] The navy set up a research institute in Shanghai in the early 1980s to design an aircraft carrier.[3] In 1985, Chinese shipbreakers purchased the HMAS Melbourne, a damaged light aircraft carrier, from the Royal Australian Navy. According to some observers, the Australian government did not oppose the sale at that time, because China was seen as an important strategic counterweight to Soviet expansion in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese naval architects were able to study the design and build of the HMAS Melbourne and the Chinese Navy used its flight deck for pilot training.[4]

However, Liu’s vision was met with some resistance. Some military officers argued that there was no need for China to have such a powerful warship. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also raised concerns regarding the profound impact this would have on China’s foreign relations, especially with ASEAN countries, as well as New Zealand and Australia.[5] More critically, the West imposed bans on military technology transfers following the June Fourth Massacre in 1989. Research and development stalled.

Getting the Varyag home

The turning point in the achievement of Liu’s vision came after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukraine had inherited two unfinished carriers, the Ulyanovsk and the Varyag. Since the new Ukrainian government was unable to continue to build them due to insufficient funding, it scrapped the Ulyanovsk and searched for potential buyers for the Varyag, which was about seventy percent complete. Both China and India expressed interest in acquiring it.[6] However, the United States and Japan were putting pressure on Ukraine not to sell to China, accusing it of engaging with a state that was under an arms embargo. Beijing was also unable to pay the US$ 2 billion price tag the Ukrainians had put on the vessel.[7]

In 1998, the Varyag was put up for auction. A Chinese businessman, Xu Zengping 徐增平 bid US$ 20 million.[8] He bought the vessel under the name of the Chong Lot Tourism and Entertainment Company 长乐旅游与娱乐公司, a company registered in Macau. Even though the Chinese government denied any association with Chong Lot,[9] newspapers in Hong Kong reported that Xu was a retired PLA soldier, and that most of Chong Lot’s board was made up of former naval officers and Chinese nationals from the province of Shandong, which happened to be home to the North Sea Fleet.[10]

In November that year, Chong Lot unveiled plans to turn the Varyag into a floating casino and entertainment complex anchored in Macau harbor,[11] supposed evidence that it was not intended for military use. However, the Macanese authorities never received an application to operate a casino on an aircraft carrier. It would also have been impossible for the Varyag to dock at the shallow harbour of Macau.[12]

Getting the Varyag back to China also proved slow and costly. Some design blueprints went missing, and Xu had to request a new copy from the Ukraine government, which took months of waiting. Then, Turkey refused the Varyag permission to pass through its territorial waters as the ship ‘had not taken certain technical measures’, given that it was such a large vessel, but without an engine.[13] And the Turkish authority was concerned about sea lane safety. It was not until Beijing promised to boost trade and tourism links with Ankara that the eighteen months of deadlock ended.[14] During this time, Xu had to pay Ukraine approximate US$ 272,000 per month for mooring and towing costs. When the Varyag finally passed the Black Sea, it was again denied entry to the Suez Canal by Egypt for the same reason. In the end, the Varyag had to detour from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Cape of Good Hope towards the Indian Ocean. It was not until 3 March 2002, when it finally arrived in the port of Dalian in Liaoning province.

The Chinese government secretly reimbursed Xu for his expenses and the ownership of the Varyag was transferred to the PLAN. It took another nine years to transform the vessel into China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning 辽宁舰, which was launched in 2012. Five years later, the first domestically built carrier, the Shandong 山东舰, built on the basis of the Liaoning, entered active service in 2019. A fourth and fifth aircraft carrier are currently in the planning stages.

China’s first aircraft carrier the Liaoning seen on Hong Kong waters (image credit: wikimedia commons)

Building a world-class navy

Addressing a parade of naval forces in April 2018, Xi Jinping, as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, announced the goal of constructing a world-class navy. His speech clearly signalled to the world that China intended to expand its influence across the oceans in the coming decades.

Three years before Xi’s speech, in the PRC’s National Defence White Paper of 2015, the Ministry of Defence proposed extending the PRC’s naval strategy to ‘far sea protection’ 远海护卫 in addition to ‘near sea defence’. The role of the navy would no longer be limited to defending Chinese maritime territory. Far sea protection is about safeguarding China’s expanding interests overseas, including the protection of sea lines of communication, maritime cargoes, ships, and trade routes as well as the security of its citizens and businesses overseas.[15]

From 2005 to 2021, the Navy added eighty-six ships to its fleet. Many of these are missile-armed fast patrol crafts, corvettes and cruisers. It also acquired new classes of submarines, destroyers, frigates and amphibious ships, most of which were put into operation after 2019.[16] To accommodate the expansion of the naval force, China’s shipyard is also expanding. The Jiangnan Shipyard 江南造船厂 in Shanghai, one of the important shipyards of the PLAN, currently occupies an area of over 7.3 kilometres while its neighbouring Hudong-Zhonghua Yard 沪东中华造船厂 will be expanding its shipbuilding area by around 50 percent. Such significant shipbuilding development — all the vessels were constructed in China — has allowed the PLAN to enhance its maritime defence capability in both near and far seas.

Military leaders and official media have defined a ‘world-class navy’ as playing a more crucial role in national rejuvenation than other parts of the military because of its overseas role. Robert Ross, a professor at Boston College, describes China’s maritime ambition as ‘naval nationalism’, following the historical pattern that great powers turn seaward with the growth of mass nationalism and nationalist leadership.[17] Although initially, the goal of building an aircraft carrier was to enhance the PRC’s naval capability, Chinese state media now typically portrays its construction as a symbol of great power status, showcasing the country’s technological capacity and resources. It presents the deployment of warships, on the other hand, as representing China’s ability to defend its own territory and prevent foreign intervention in Chinese affairs, an antidote to the bitter history of the century of humiliation.

The Party also views the navy as a tool for power projection. Hu Jintao made ‘constructing a strong maritime state’ 建设海洋强国 a national objective close to the end of his term as Party and state leader in 2012. The Navy supports this national goal by increasing its presence in the open oceans. In 2017, the PLAN established the PRC’s first overseas base in Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa. Although state media claim that the base is only for logistical support, it is certainly strategically advantageous. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the PLAN had conducted ports of call and joint exercises with foreign navies, including those of the United States, Russia, Pakistan and Thailand, as a type of naval diplomacy. It has also been involved in non-military operations in the Indian Ocean, such as search and rescue, escort and anti-piracy, through which run some of the world’s busiest trade routes. To date, forty Chinese fleet groups have conducted anti-piracy escort missions in the Gulf of Aden. The PLAN has also been training civilian vessels to act as maritime militias when necessary, such as escorting other Chinese civilian vessels for fishing activities and tracking and monitoring foreign vessels in disputed waters.[18] It also provides professional guidance to several domestic maritime law enforcement agencies, such as the China Coast Guard. Clearly, the navy has become more than a warfighting tool.

A world-class navy also helps protect the PRC’s regional interests. Since 2012, the Chinese government has largely employed non-military measures to increase its maritime influence in the East and South China Seas, such as law enforcement operations and land reclamation (reef building). China perceives itself as encircled by regional naval powers, including Russia, Japan and India, as well as the presence of the global US navy in nearby waters. Beijing sees a world-class navy as required to prevent the United States and its allies from contravening its interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Challenges ahead

Despite investing considerable resources into constructing a world-class navy, the PLAN still faces many challenges. Similar to its other armed forces, the Chinese Navy lacks real-life, modern combat experience. The last time the PLAN was involved in a military confrontation was the Johnson South Reef Skirmish with Vietnamese forces in 1988. Even though it has conducted much training and many exercises throughout the years, its ability to operate modern warships and weaponry systems in a sea battle remains untested.

A lesson of the Russo–Ukrainian War is that a weakness in modern joint operations is coordination between land, sea, air, cyber, and space forces.[19] Most strategists would still describe the Chinese Navy as a semi-blue-water navy with the capability to navigate globally but lacking operational experience. In addition, the expansion of the carrier fleet is yet to offer a direct challenge to the United States’ dominant global sea power. The Fujian is catching up with the United States’ naval technology, but the PLAN is still unable to compete with the United States Navy in overall fleet size and capability. As Sam Roggeveen, the Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, points out, ‘Carriers are a sign of Chinese power—but that doesn’t mean Beijing has to rule the waves’.

A complicated geopolitical environment hinders the Chinese Navy’s further expansion. Blocked by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, as well as India and the United States from projecting its influence beyond the near seas, the PLAN does not have direct access to the open ocean — one reason for the PRC’s push for security cooperation with other developing states in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Moreover, because of the on-going territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, neighbouring countries tend to view China’s assertive naval expansion, especially any build-up of forces in the Asia-Pacific region, as a security threat. Such a view is echoed in a March 2022 report by the US Congressional Research Service which stated, ‘In an era of renewed great power competition, China’s military moderni[s]ation effort, including its naval moderni[s]ation effort, has become the top focus of U.S. defen[c]e planning and budgeting.’ Regardless, as Chinese overseas interests increase, its maritime ambition will continue to expand. The goal, as Xi Jinping has stated, is nothing less than the PRC’s transformation into a ‘true maritime power’ 海洋强国.


[1] Edward Sing Yue Chan, China’s Maritime Security Strategy: The Evolution of a Growing Sea Power (New York: Routledge, 2022), 46-8; Taylor M. Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Dtrategy Since 1949 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 162-3.

[2] Liu Huaqing 刘华清, Liu Huaqing memoir 刘华清回忆录, (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe, 2004), 479.

[3] You Xu and You Ji, In Search of Blue Water Power: The PLA Navy’s Maritime Strategy in the 1990s and Beyond (Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University, 1990), 11-13.

[4] Ian Storey and You Ji , ‘China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,’ Naval War College Review 57, no. 1 (2004): 79.

[5] You and You, In Search of Blue Water Power, 12.

[6] Vladimir Matyash, ‘Minister comments on state of defence industry,’ BBC. 19 September, 1992.

[7] ‘China Seeking Aircraft Carrier to Secure South China Sea’, Asian Political News Kyodo News, 17 August, 1992.

[8] Storey and You, ‘China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,’ 82.

[9] Sergei Blagov, ‘No connection to naval ship, says embassy,’ South China Morning Post, 4 April, 1998.

[10] ‘Intelligence,’ Far Eastern Economic Review, 16 April 1998.

[11] Storey and You, ‘China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,’ 83.

[12] Ibid.; ‘Macau says waters too shallow for ex-Soviet carrier,’ Reuters, 11 January 2001.

[13] ‘Chinese aircraft carrier not allowed through Turkish strait – Turkish official,’ BBC, 4 December 2000.

[14] Adam Luck and Raymond Ma, ‘Beijing clams waters for “floating casino”’, South China Morning Post, 9 September, 2001.

[15] Fravel, Active defense, 232.

[16] Chan, China’s Maritime Security Strategy, 149-52.

[17] Robert S. Ross, ‘Nationalism, geopolitics, and naval expansionism: from the nineteeth century to the rise of China,’ Naval War College Review 71, no. 4 (2018): 11-44; Robert S. Ross, ‘China’s naval nationalism: sources, prospects, and the U.S. response,’ International Security 34, no. 2 (2009): 46-81.

[18] Conor M. Kennedy, ‘Gray fores in blue territory: the grammar of Chinese Maritime Militia Gray Zone Operations,’ in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, edited by Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 168-185.

[19] David D. Chen, ‘Lessons of Ukraine raise doubts about PLA modernization,’ China Brief 22, no. 7 (2022): 16-21.

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