Citizens of Hong Kong visit the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in Hong Kong, south China, July 8, 2017. A flotilla including China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning on Friday arrived in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) for a visit, during which Liaoning, for the first time, is open for the public to visit. (Xinhua/Qin Qing)
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy will operate at least five aircraft carriers in the near future, including the country's first two nuclear-powered ones that would likely be launched around 2025, Chinese military experts predicted on Wednesday.
The remarks came after online discussions on how many aircraft carriers China needs, which were sparked by a WeChat article from the Xinhua News Agency on November 25, which announced the construction of the nation's third aircraft carrier.
The PLA Navy will shift its focus from "offshore waters defense" to "offshore waters defense" with "open seas protection," and will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattacks, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and support, according to China's Military Strategy released by the State Council's Information Office in 2015.
Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator, said that China needs at least five aircraft carriers to fulfill the strategic shifts.
Wang Yunfei, a naval expert and retired PLA Navy officer, told the Global Times on Wednesday that China needs six aircraft carriers to ensure enough carriers are on active duty while the others are undergoing maintenance.
Meanwhile, China's Ministry of National Defense has not yet revealed a plan for future carriers.
Ministry spokesperson Ren Guoqiang said at a press conference in November that the development of China's aircraft carriers will be based on the country's overall plan.
The plan includes China's comprehensive national strength and shipbuilding capabilities, experts said.
The Liaoning and the Type 001A, which use a ski jump ramp to launch aircraft, will mainly remain in offshore waters near China, Song said. A third one, which will likely use an electromagnetic catapult, will go further into open seas and lay the foundation for the operations of two nuclear-powered carriers to protect China's global interests.
Wang echoed that China will develop two nuclear-powered carriers, but he said China's fourth carrier will remain conventionally powered, before making the fifth and sixth ones nuclear-powered.
Song expected China's first nuclear-powered carrier to be launched around 2022-24, while Wang predicted its launch ceremony in 2026.
The goal of having five to six aircraft carriers will be reached by 2030-35, experts said.