In a reflection of China’s increasing maritime ambitions, the country commissioned its first aircraft carrier on Tuesday in an event hailed by top officials as being of “far-reaching significance” and coming amid rising regional tensions.

The unveiling of the 300 metre-long Liaoning, a refurbished and upgraded version of the Soviet carrier Varyag which China purchased from Ukraine, came after years of sea trials and tests to fit the carrier with weapons and engines.

The Liaoning was commissioned by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the port city of Dalian — the capital of the north-eastern province after which the carrier is named.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who presided over the commissioning along with President Hu Jintao and top PLA officials, said China’s first aircraft carrier would “be of great and far-reaching significance in inspiring patriotism, national spirit and driving national defence technologies,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Defence analysts were quoted as saying by state media that the Liaoning was, however, not yet close to being put into active service with China needing to train pilots.

The PLA said the carrier would continue to serve “for scientific research purposes” besides military training.

The commissioning of the Liaoning makes China the tenth nation to have an aircraft carrier. The development comes amid rising strains between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in East China Sea.

Defence ties

Several of China’s south-east Asian neighbours have, in recent months, also sought closer defence ties with the United States after tensions in the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels have had run-ins with those from the Vietnam and the Philippines.

“An aircraft carrier will give the Navy defence capacity far beyond land-based aviation force’s combat radius,” Fang Bing, a scholar at the PLA’s National Defence University, told Xinhua.

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