The debut of China’s first aircraft carrier marks a symbolic milestone for the growing military power, but analysts said the second-hand vessel remains far from a strategic game-changer.
China officially put the vessel into service on Tuesday, flexing its muscle just as Asian maritime rivalries are at boiling point, with Taiwan, China and Japan locked in an increasingly hostile dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
China’s military and political leadership have portrayed the 300m Liaoning as a quantum leap forward in naval capability at a time when the US says it is making a strategic “pivot” toward Asia.
However, without the rest of the battle group or the planes to go with it, the new hardware is more of a symbolic first step that may give the navy some prestige, but does not dramatically change its military options, analysts say.
At a commissioning ceremony in the northeastern port of Dalian, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) called the carrier’s launch a “milestone” in Chinese military history and weapons development.
Yang Yi (楊毅), a rear admiral in China’s navy, said in a commentary in state-run media that the hulking vessel moves the country closer to fulfilling a national destiny to “not only be a land power but also a sea power.”
Tensions in the East China Sea have risen dramatically in recent months over islands known as the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) to Taipei and Beijing and claimed by Tokyo as the Senkakus.
China is locked in a similar row with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
With the carrier, “China will have more variable ways, both strong and soft, to solve the disputes in the East and South China seas,” Qiao Liang (喬良), an air force major general and leading author on military affairs, told state media.
Analysts say that China still lacks proven carrier-borne aircraft and that the second-hand retro-fitted ship brings China little closer to developing its own carrier force.
“This carrier is more of a stepping stone for further development,” said Arthur Ding (丁樹範), a Taiwan-based expert on China’s military.
Ding said the vessel would have a “psychological impact” on the region due to its symbolism, but was “unlikely to change the overall balance of power overnight” as it was intended mainly as a training platform for any future Chinese-made carrier.
Ukraine built the vessel for its navy in the 1980s, eventually selling its stripped-down hulk to Beijing in 1998. It was later towed to China, which installed engines and navigation systems.
However, developing fixed-wing aircraft and training pilots capable of landing on the carrier is another matter, said Ralph Cossa, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu.
“Carrier operations are not easy. Refitting the ship is one thing. Developing a carrier-based air wing is another,” he said.
China is developing J-15 strike aircraft, possibly for use on the carrier. Pictures have emerged on Chinese Web sites of aircraft on the carrier’s flight deck, but China’s capabilities are unproven.
“You cannot call a ship an aircraft carrier without aircraft,” Qiao was quoted by state media as saying, although he added that he was confident China would soon be able to field a carrier-based air wing.
The Liaoning — named for the northeastern Chinese province — is not expected to be a fully operational aircraft carrier for another three years at least, and a domestically made carrier is even further in the future.