New satellite images show China is making fast progress on its third aircraft carrier and expanding the shipyard where it is being built - potentially for more huge ships, according to analysts.
The high-resolution images of the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai were taken last month by Washington-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). They show construction work on the vessel, the Type 002, in the shipyard's dry dock, with a series of prefabricated sections, bulkheads and other components stacked nearby, Reuters reported on Thursday.
Based on the images, the CSIS believed the hull assembly should be finished within 12 months and the ship would then be moved to a newly built harbour and wharf for fitting.
The PLA Navy has one operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, while the Type 001A - the first to be made in China - is undergoing sea trials. They were both worked on at the Dalian Shipyard in the northeast of the country.
China has yet to officially announce the details of the Type 002, but state media has confirmed it is being built.
According to naval expert Li Jie, there will be more to come. He believed the Chinese navy would need five or six aircraft carriers to meet its needs in the future.
The satellite images suggest the huge new harbour on the Yangtze River estuary is nearly complete and could be used to build much bigger vessels - it is far larger than the existing harbour next to it where destroyers and other warships are docked, according to the report.
It also has a nearly 1km wharf and buildings for ship component manufacturing.
Earlier images analysed by CSIS show much of the area was apparently abandoned farmland just a year ago, the report said.
"It is hard to imagine all this is being done for just one ship," CSIS analyst Matthew Funaiole was quoted as saying. "This looks more like a specialised space for carriers and or other larger vessels."
Li said the Shanghai shipyard was likely to build the navy's next aircraft carrier, after the Type 002 was completed, and it would probably be similar in design.
"That they've expanded the harbour is no surprise, given that future aircraft carriers will be larger and more complicated - such as being nuclear-powered," he said.
Jiangnan Shipyard is a subsidiary of China State Shipbuilding Corporation, one of the country's two major state-owned warship builders along with the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. CSSC and CSIC announced in July that they would merge.
CSSC and CSIC have over the past few years built hundreds of military vessels, including aircraft carriers, Type 055 destroyers, Type 075 amphibious assault ships and Type 094A nuclear submarines as the Chinese navy seeks to rapidly modernise.
The navy was estimated to have 335 major warships - submarines, aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, missile-armed patrol ships and amphibious ships - as of this year, according to a US Congressional Research Service report released earlier this month. That compares to 216 warships back in 2005.
Given that the PLA Navy has retired a number of older vessels in that time, its fleet capability would also have improved along with the increase in warships.
The report, titled "China naval modernisation: implications for US Navy capabilities - background and issues for Congress", also compared the Chinese fleet to that of the US Navy over the same period. It found that the US had 75 more warships than China in 2005, but by this year, the US Navy had 49 fewer warships than the PLA Navy.
The growth also reflected the expansion of the China Coast Guard - it had 185 ships in 2017, but just two years later the number was 248.
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.