China put its first aircraft carrier into service yesterday, in a show of strength that came as territorial disputes over strategic islands in the region escalated.
China is locked in a row with Japan over Tokyo-controlled islands in the East China Sea.
Chinese leaders attended a commissioning ceremony for the 300m aircraft carrier, a former Soviet ship that was bought from Ukraine.
The carrier was named the Liaoning after the northeastern province that is home to China’s main naval port city of Dalian, where it was extensively refitted.
The commissioning makes China the last permanent member of the UN Security Council to have an aircraft carrier, and it comes as Beijing’s political and economic clout grows.
Numerous sea trials of the carrier were met with concern from regional powers, including Japan and the US, which called on Beijing to explain why it needed such a vessel.
“The PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army] general armament department, the navy and all comrades participating in the carrier program should make new contributions in promoting China’s weaponry construction and safeguarding national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) said at the ceremony in Dalian. “It will also be of great significance in enhancing national defense power and the country’s comprehensive strength.”
The US has played down the importance of the aircraft carrier, saying following its first sea trial in August last year that it had “limited” capability.
However, the Pentagon also said the vessel was the first step toward a future fleet of carriers expected to be built domestically in coming years.
Taiwan’s intelligence chief said earlier this year that China has decided to build two aircraft carriers. However, despite rumors that work has already begun, there is no evidence of construction of a domestically built carrier.
Beijing confirmed last year it was revamping the former Soviet ship — originally called the Varyag — and has repeatedly insisted it poses no threat to its neighbors.
It says the ship will mainly be used for training and development purposes, but military commentators say China is developing strike aircraft and support vessels that would help the ship become fully operational.
Pictures have been published in the Chinese press showing domestically built planes on the carrier’s deck.
Leading generals have also said that developing strike aircraft for China’s navy is a top priority for military bosses.
“Having the aircraft carrier enter the ranks will be of important significance in raising the overall fighting capacity of our nation’s navy to a modern level,” the defense ministry said. “[It] will be effective in defending the interests of state sovereignty, security and development and advancing world peace and common development.”
The ministry also said the vessel will increase China’s capacity to defend itself and “cooperate on the high seas in dealing with non-traditional security threats.”