State media confirmed for the first time on Monday that China was building its first carrier-borne early-warning plane (AWCS) called the KJ-600, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported today.
The announcement comes as the United States has deployed F-35 stealth jets to bases in Japan and other parts of the Asia-Pacific over the last year, challenging China's air defences in the region, the report said.
Chinese military observers said the KJ-600 would be fitted with an advanced active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar which could enable it to spot stealth aircraft such as America's F-22s and F-35s.
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said the new surveillance plane could also become a command centre in the air.
"AESA can detect stealth fighters at a very long range," Li said.
He said the aircraft would fill a critical weapons gap with the US and improve the combat effectiveness of Chinese carrier battle groups.
Li said the KJ-600 would likely be used on China's third aircraft carrier under construction in Shanghai and be compatible with its advanced electromagnetic launch system (EMALS).
EMALS can launch jets more quickly and effectively than the ski-jump ramps used on Chinas first two aircraft carriers.
China currently has operationalised its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a refitted Soviet Union-made vessel in 2012.
It launched its second aircraft carrier in April 2017 which was expected to begin sea trials next month and it announced plans to build a third one in Shanghai.
Earlier reports said China plans to have four aircraft carriers in by 2030 to operate from the disputed South China Sea as well as Indian Ocean.