China has successfully landed a fighter jet on its first aircraft carrier, which entered service two months ago, the country’s official news agency confirmed.
Xinhua News Agency said the landing exercise on the Liaoning carrier marked the debut of the J-15 fighter jet, a fighter-bomber developed by China from Russia’s Sukhoi Su-33.
“We must enhance our independent weapons and equipment research and production capacity to match the country’s clout, and independently build our own aircraft carriers“
– President Hu Jintao
“The successful landing… has always been seen as a symbol of the operating combat capability for an aircraft carrier,” Zhang Junshe, a vice director at the military’s Naval Affairs Research Institute, told state television on Sunday.
“This is a landmark event for China’s aircraft carrier… and [moves it] one step closer to combat readiness.”
The Liaoning aircraft carrier underscores China’s ambitions to be a leading Asian naval power, but it is not expected to carry a full complement of planes or be ready for combat for some time.
Speaking from Vietnam, Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales in Sydney said the development bolsters China’s naval power “in terms of perception.”
“In actuality, it’s a very important step forward,” Thayer told Al Jazeera. “But it’s a small step in a long path” in matching the United States naval dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Defence Ministry’s website carried photos of the jet taking off from and landing on the carrier.
Citing unnamed naval sources, Xinhua said that “the carrier platform and J-15 capabilities met all requirements and achieved good compatibility”.
Xinhua says the J-15 is able to carry anti-ship, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and precision-guided bombs. The Chinese designed fighter jet is based on Russia’s Sukoi 33, equipped with Russian engines.
Since China’s Liaoning ship formally entered into service on September 25, its crew members have completed more than 100 training and test programmes, Xinhua said.
China bought the former Soviet navy’s unfinished carrier from Ukraine in 1998 and spent years refurbishing it.
Construction of the vessel, formerly known as the Varyag, was commissioned by the former Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, but work halted with the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Over the past year, China has become increasingly assertive over its longtime maritime territorial claims as its economic and military power have expanded, causing rising anxiety among its neighbours.
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Tensions in the East China Sea have risen dramatically in recent months over islands known as the Diaoyus to Beijing and claimed by Tokyo as the Senkakus.
China is also locked in a similar row with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
At a key Communist Party congress earlier this month, outgoing President Hu Jintao urged the nation to push forward fast-paced military modernisation and set the goal of becoming a “maritime power”.
Such an endeavour would mean that China would soon need to construct an independently built aircraft carrier, Hu Wenming, chairman of China State Shipbuilding Corp (CSSC) that retro-fitted the Liaoning, said.
“We must enhance our independent weapons and equipment research and production capacity to match the country’s clout, and independently build our own aircraft carriers,” Hu told the China Daily on the sidelines of the congress.
A senior Taiwan intelligence official said earlier this year that China had already decided to build two aircraft carriers. However, despite rumours that work has already begun, there is no evidence that it has started.
When that happens as early as 2015, the crew of Liaoning “will be able to transfer over and then begin operations almost immediately,” Thayer told Al Jazeera.