China has taken delivery of its first aircraft carrier into service, according to the country’s defence ministry.
The 300-metre-long Liaoning, named after the province where it was refitted, is a refurbished Soviet ship purchased from Ukraine.
Tuesday’s unveiling is an attempt by China to be a leading Asian naval power, although the ship is not expected to carry a full complement of planes or be ready for combat for some time.
The announcement had been long expected and was not directly linked to current tensions with Japan over a disputed group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
In a brief notice on its website, the ministry said the carrier’s commissioning significantly boosted the navy’s combat capabilities and its ability to cooperate in responding to natural disasters and other non-traditional threats.
“It has important significance in effectively safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and development benefits, and advancing world peace and common development,” the statement said.
The vessel will “increase [China’s] capacity to defend, develop its capacity to co-operate on the high seas in dealing with non-traditional security threats and will be effective in defending the interests of state sovereignty, security and development”, it said.
Richard Bitzinger, a military specialist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Al Jazeera that the carrier, which China obtained from the Ukraine in 1998, gives the world’s second largest economy “a modicum of air power”.
“I think at this point having just one carrier … is mostly a symbolic move,” Bitzinger said, noting that it is still no match to the US air power.
“Although that is going to very quickly evolve into a real fighting capability,” he said.
The US currently has eleven Nimitz class carriers, by far the largest carrier fleet in the world.
“About six of those carriers are based in the Pacific. This is more than a match for this current carrier that the Chinese has, which at the most can maybe fly about a dozen, a dozen and a half fighter jets,” he said.
China had partly justified the launching of a carrier by pointing out that it alone among the five permanent UN Security Council members had no such craft.
The Liaoning, formerly known as the Varyag, was constructed in the 1980s for the Soviet navy but was never completed.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Varyag sat in Ukraine’s dockyards.
A Chinese company with links to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bought the ship just as Soviet warships were being cut for scrap.
So far the trial runs of the aircraft carrier have been to test the ship’s propulsion, communications and navigation systems.
But launching and recovering fixed-wing aircraft at sea is a much trickier proposition.
China has not said what role it intends the carrier to fill other than helping safeguard China’s coastline and sea links.
The Liaoning has also been portrayed as a kind of test platform for the future development of up to five domestically built Chinese carriers.