The development of four or more aircraft carriers is only natural in order to satisfy China’s burgeoning national security needs, Chinese military analysts said on Thursday as the country’s second carrier is close to commissioning and a third under construction.

The comments followed a report which said China might build a fourth aircraft carrier.

When asked to comment on media reports about the construction of a third aircraft carrier and whether the development of a fourth had started, Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense, told the Global Times at a routine press conference that China’s carrier development was a strategic decision.

Future development will depend on economic growth, national security threats and national defense needs, Ren said.

The third carrier is under construction at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, China Central Television reported this month.

The Chinese navy is planning a fourth in 2021, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on Thursday.

Ren’s remarks could be seen as an indication that new carriers are planned, a military expert who asked not to be named told the Global Times.

China’s economy is growing stably with growing overseas investments that require military strength to be protected, the expert said, noting China faces potential naval threats in the south, east and northeast.

China’s two current carriers are conventionally powered and use old-fashioned ski jump decks, making them less powerful than their US counterparts, Chinese analysts said, predicting newer Chinese carriers will feature a flat deck, electromagnetic catapults and eventually nuclear power.

By far the most powerful symbol of China’s design on regional dominance is the development of its own fleet of aircraft carriers. Credit: VCG.

Answering a question about the second aircraft carrier and if it will be based in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province, Ren said everything was going smoothly and a final time for commissioning will be decided depending on comprehensive progress.

The deployment location of the carrier will be determined by security threats and national defense needs, Ren said, noting that it was not related to the regional situation nor any specific target, country or region.

According to The National Interest, China understands that in the steady-state security environment of the Western Pacific, its carrier force would be a pivotal and influential capability, essential to its quest for regional dominance.

Furthermore, China understands that in a maritime conflict with virtually any nation but the United States, its carriers would be a powerful combat advantage.

Finally, China understands that if conflict with the United States comes, its carriers’ warfighting capability would — like the rest of its arsenal — have to be employed based on the principle of calculated risk. It would be wise for strategists in the United States to remember these same principles.

Simply put, China views the United States as Asia’s hegemon, and its strategy seeks to deprive the United States of this role.

By far the most powerful symbol of China’s design on regional dominance is the development of its own fleet of aircraft carriers.

With one flat-top already launched and two to three more in the works, an interesting question arises. Why would a nation that has spent considerable time and effort to deny the US Navy freedom of maneuver by creating the impression that its aircraft carriers were vulnerable embark on the expensive, logistically arduous, and operationally dubious decision to build its own carriers?

By far the most powerful symbol of China’s design on regional dominance is the development of its own fleet of aircraft carriers. Credit: Straits Times.

The answer is that the benefit of a carrier force to achieving China’s strategic goals far outweighs the risks associated with operating them — a lesson that the United States once embraced, and one which must be generationally re-learned.

Whether in a direct or support role, carriers have taken part in almost every major military operation the US has undertaken since the Second World War. They also serve as first-rate diplomatic tools to either heighten or ease political pressure. When regional tensions increase, a carrier, or sometimes two, is sent to patrol off their coast. And when an election takes place in a nascent democracy or country central to US interests, a strike group typically is sailing offshore.

China recognizes this brand of unique flexibility and the extensibility of the aircraft carrier across the spectrum of conflict, from presence through deterrence to coercion and war-fighting.

China cannot be ignorant of the multiplicity of threats arrayed against its potential carrier force. For starters, the peerless US Navy Submarine Force would likely make short work of China’s carriers in a conflict. But that scenario is unlikely.

More likely, Chinese fleet architects are thinking about carriers more for their ability to exert influence throughout the region, like coercing nations reluctant to toe China’s nine-dash-line claims in the South China Sea, and in order to display global Chinese influence as far afield as the Eastern Pacific and the Mediterranean Sea.