Project 048: China’s Secret Aircraft Carrier Command?

According to information circulated in the Chinese media, during the meeting between Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie and Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada on March 20, wherein General Liang confirmed China’s intent to develop aircraft carriers, a mysterious unit was reportedly present at the meeting. The “048 Engineering Command" is purportedly an inter-agency task force within the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) responsible for developing "special large military ships" or aircraft carriers (Stnn.cn, March 22; Nownews, March 21).

"Project 048," as it is referred to in the Chinese media, is reportedly equal in stature with other core units under the umbrella of the PLAN Headquarters, and under the directorship of the PLAN Party Committee. Although the precise status of the unit is unconfirmed through available sources, reports speculate that the joint-command of "Project 048" may be under a PLAN deputy commanding officer, or as high as under the direct command of a PLAN commanding officer. According to Chinese media reports, the name of the project may have been determined based on the Central Military Commission’s decision to launch its project to build "special large military ships"  back in 2004 in the month of August, which corresponds with the number 04 and 8 (hence Project 048) (Stnn.cn, March 22; Nownews, March 21).

Full preparations for building the aircraft carriers reportedly followed in 2005, which includes the purchase of ship-based test machines and ship-borne landing gears. While domestic carrier power, power distribution system designs were all allegedly completed (Hong Kong Commercial Daily, March 22). A Japanese news report citing unspecified military sources reported that "China will begin construction of two conventional aircraft carriers this year." Citing the same source the report stated, "production of parts for the electricity control system has already begun in China and plans call for completing the two conventional carriers by around 2015 … [a] system for operating those carriers will be established by 2020." "[China’s] first nuclear-powered flattops would be constructed in 2020 or later" the report added (Asahi Shimbun, February 14).

According to Li Ou, deputy-mayor of Siping City in Jilin Province, who wrote a commentary in the People’s Daily—the media organ of the Central Committee of the CCP—the reason behind the timing of General Liang’s statement, “China cannot be without an aircraft carrier forever," has to do with the situation along the Taiwan Strait. According to Li, China already possessed the "compressive national strength to construct aircraft carriers" many years ago, and the reason why China denied this capability for so long was due to the tense state of cross-Strait relations. Li said that the central leadership was concerned that the United States would use this known Chinese capability as an excuse to support Taiwan’s independence. Now that tensions in the Taiwan Strait have eased, Li wrote that the central leadership no longer has to worry about U.S. interference, and in the event that Taiwan independence forces return, if China has an aircraft carrier then it will be more difficult for the United States to intervene (People’s Daily Online, March 25).

According to the Asahi Shimbun: “Construction has already begun on a wharf along Yalong Bay in the Sanya district of Hainan island. The wharf would provide base functions for aircraft carriers as well as include underground storage for ammunition” (Asahi Shimbun, February 14). Information concerning "Project 048" also appeared in the same report, which referred to it as a “special task force for [the] construction of aircraft carriers” (Asahi Shimbun, February 14). The reported unveiling of "Project 048" at the meeting with the Japanese defense minister, whom—along with its Asian neighbors—has been wary of China’s military modernization, is another demonstration of China’s increased confidence in both regional and global affairs. The outpour of statements from high ranking Chinese military officers in recent months, culminating in Defense Minister Liang’s remark, may be "signaling" a major announcement at the upcoming PLAN Naval Review on April 23, which commemorates the 60th anniversary of the PLAN’s founding back in 1949 (China Post, March 6).