There was a certain symbolism to the timing of the formal commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier into the PLA-Navy (above, with more pictures of the ceremony at a naval base north of Dalian here). It came as Beijing is embroiled in maritime sovereignty disputes with most of its neighbours in the East and South China Seas. Carriers project the epitome of naval power, and as many officials have repeated, are “symbols of a great nation”.
It is worth remembering, however, that China’s first carrier–a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, now renamed the Liaoning–falls into the class of light aircraft carriers. As a “ski-jump” not “catapult” carrier, it can’t launch the most advanced fighters. It is as much an aviation-capable patrol ship as a carrier of the line. It is primarily intended for the PLA to learn the ropes of carrier operations.
At the 58,500-tons, the vessel is small by carrier standards. It is about half the size of U.S. carriers, even if still large enough to dwarf the coast guard boats and fishing vessels now increasingly plying the more sensitive disputed waters off the coasts of China and its neighbours. This year was always the intended date of its commissioning, but state media have previously reported that the carrier won’t be ready for active service until 2017, which is not to say it won’t be available for flag-waving duties before then. But it is also worth remembering that two larger and more advanced carriers are under construction in yards in Shanghai planned for launch in 2014 with a first nuclear powered carrier scheduled for launch by 2020.