China put its first aircraft carrier into service on Tuesday in a show of force amid spats with Korea and Japan over maritime territory.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiaobao attended the launch of the Liaoning in the port of Dalian on Tuesday morning, the state-run People's Daily reported. It took less than two years for the old Soviet carrier to be retrofitted and put into service.
The Chinese military said it would ready the J-15 carrier-based fighter jets for deployment aboard the Liaoning, but this has yet to be confirmed. So far they have only been tested on land.
A state-of-the-art destroyer that will escort the Liaoning is still under construction, and experts believe more time will be needed before China can form an aircraft carrier fleet.
Chinese authorities and experts believe the Liaoning will be used for the time being to hone fighter jet pilots' landing and liftoff skills and other tactical maneuvers.
"It's still too early to deploy the Liaoning, but China pressed ahead in order to flex its muscle amid ongoing territorial disputes with its neighbors," said Kim Tae-ho at Hallym University. "It will take a few more years before it can be fully operational."
A military source here said it is rare to see an aircraft carrier being deployed without an accompanying destroyer. "This is clearly a show of force amid regional friction" involving the Diaoyou islands and the submerged rocks of Ieo Island. Diaoyu is the Chinese name for the Senkaku islands controlled by Japan, and Ieo Island is located in an area where the exclusive economic zones of Korea and China overlap but lies much closer to the Korean Peninsula.
China is not shy about deploying the Liaoning to intimidate its regional neighbors. The People's Daily said, "The aircraft carrier will be able to exercise a certain degree of threat to neighboring countries."
Experts believe the carrier will be stationed in Qingdao port, which is home to China's Northern Fleet controlling the West Sea. Qingdao is surrounded by waters deep enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier and equipped with the necessary repair and maintenance docks.
If the Liaoning is deployed on the West Sea carrying J-15 fighter jets, then most of Korea's airspace would fall in its range, which is estimated to be around 800 km. That would make it tougher for Korean Navy vessels to enter the West Sea, while aerial operations would also be affected.
But experts say the Chinese carrier is no match for the nuclear-powered U.S. carrier George Washington, whose areas of operation include the Korean Peninsula and the West Sea. The George Washington's maximum area of operation is around 1,000 km, and the FA-18 E/F Super Hornet attack aircraft it carries are superior to the J-15.
Other experts believe the Liaoning's area of operation will not be limited to the West Sea. They say China will need to deploy the carrier around 1,000 km away from its coast to intervene in other territorial disputes.
"Diaoyu is only 350 km away from China so there probably will be no need to use an aircraft carrier," said Jin Canrong at Renmin University. "It could play some roles in the South China Sea."