Satellite images show China has built mock-ups of a US navy aircraft carrier and destroyer in its north-western desert, possibly for practice for a future clash.
China has massively upgraded its military in recent years, and its capability and intentions are increasingly concerning to the US as tensions rise over the South China Sea, Taiwan and military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific.
The images captured by the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies, dated from Sunday, show the outlines of a US aircraft carrier and at least one destroyer on a railway track.
Maxar identified the location as Ruoqiang, a Taklamakan desert county in the north-western Xinjiang region.
The independent US Naval Institute (USNI) said the mock-ups of US ships were part of a new target range developed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
It was not clear from the images how many details had been included in the apparent targets, although the USNI identified features on the destroyer including its funnels and weapons systems.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said at a daily briefing on Monday that he had no information about the images. “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned,” he added.
China’s military upgrade has emphasised countering the US and other 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.
There has been a substantial increase in Chinese military flights south-west 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 US 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, which are at odds over a litany of political and economic issues.
The Pentagon issued a report this month saying China is expanding its nuclear force much faster than US officials predicted a year ago. That appears designed to enable Beijing to match or surpass US global power by mid-century, the report says.
US defence officials 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 says.
China’s navy and coastguard are also adding vessels at a record pace, concentrating them in the South China Sea, the strategic waterway that China claims virtually in its entirety.
While the US navy remains predominant, its resources are divided between the Indo-Pacific, the Persian gulf, the Mediterranean and other regions where US interests lie.
China’s test of a hypersonic weapon capable of partially orbiting Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and gliding on a manoeuvrable path to its target also surprised top US military leaders.
Beijing said it was testing a reusable space vehicle, not a missile, but the weapon system’s design was meant to evade US missile defences.
Gen Mark Milley, the chair 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 US had fallen behind technologically.