Satellite images show China has built mock-ups of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and destroyer in its northwestern desert, likely for practice for a future naval clash as tensions rise between the nations.
It comes just a month after the revelation that the Asian superpower had tested hypersonic missiles that, while still roughly 20 miles off target, were capable of entering into low orbit and bypassing US missile defense systems.
China has massively upgraded its military in recent years, and its capability and intentions are increasingly concerning to the United States as tensions rise over the South China Sea, Taiwan and military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific.
The images captured by Colorado-based satellite imagery company Maxar Technologies dated Sunday show the outlines of a U.S. aircraft carrier and at least one destroyer sitting on a railway track.
Maxar identified the location as Ruoqiang, a Taklamakan Desert county in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
The independent U.S. Naval Institute said on its website that the mock-ups of U.S. ships were part of a new target range developed by the People’s Liberation Army.
It wasn’t clear from the images how many details had been included in the apparent targets, although USNI said it had identified features on the destroyer including its funnels and weapons systems.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing Monday that he had no information about the images, saying, “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
China’s massive military upgrade has emphasized countering the U.S. and other countries’ naval forces.
That includes the development of land, sea and air-launched missiles to repel and possibly sink opposing vessels, expressed most emphatically by the land-based DF-21D ballistic missile known as the “carrier killer.”
Recent months have also seen a substantial increase in Chinese military flights just southwest of Taiwan, the self-governing island republic claimed by Beijing and which it threatens to annex by force. Washington provides Taiwan with much of its weaponry and U.S. law requires that it ensures the island can defend itself and treats threats to it as matters of “grave concern.”
The images released by Maxar come amid growing concerns over the possibility of military conflict between the world’s two biggest economies, who are at odds over a litany of political and economic issues.
The Pentagon this month issued a report saying China is expanding its nuclear force much faster than U.S. officials predicted just a year ago. That appears designed to enable Beijing to match or surpass U.S. global power by midcentury, the report said.
U.S. defense officials have said they are increasingly wary of China’s intentions, largely with regard to the status of Taiwan.
“The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen [China’s] ability to ‘fight and win wars’ against a ‘strong enemy’—a likely euphemism for the United States,” the report said.
China’s navy and coast guard are also adding new vessels at a record pace, concentrating them in the South China Sea, the strategic waterway that China claims virtually in its entirety.
While the U.S. Navy remains predominant, its resources are divided between the Indo-Pacific, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and other regions where American interests lie.
China’s test of a hypersonic weapon capable of partially orbiting Earth before reentering the atmosphere and gliding on a maneuverable path to its target also surprised top U.S. military leaders. Beijing insisted it was testing a reusable space vehicle, not a missile, but the weapon system’s design is meant to evade U.S. missile defenses.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the test was “very close” to being a “Sputnik moment,” akin to the 1957 launching by the Soviet Union of the world’s first space satellite, which fed fears the United States had fallen behind technologically.
Milley has been personally criticized for allowing many of the US military failures to happen on his watch, including reports that he promised his Chinese counterpart he would warn of any strike during the Trump administration, and his prioritization of indoctrinating troops into Critical Race Theory while failing to adequately prepare for the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press