China's first aircraft carrier was formally delivered to the PLA Navy and commissioned in Dalian , Liaoning , yesterday after seven years of refitting.
The defence ministry said the carrier, named the Liaoning, would "raise the overall operational strength of the Chinese navy", but analysts said its role would be largely limited to training, at least in the near future. As yet it has no aircraft.
State media have been silent on which fleet the carrier will be assigned to, and analysts said it might not be assigned to any fleet at all to avoid association with territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas.
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In a ceremony attended by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , the Liaoning was officially handed over by the navy's main contractor - China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation - at a naval base in Dalian, the Ministry of National Defence said on its website.
But Vice-President Xi Jinping , China's leader-in-waiting and a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), was apparently absent.
Hu, CMC chairman and Communist Party general secretary, handed a military flag and naming certificates to the carrier's commander, Senior Captain Zhang Zheng , and his unit, while Wen read a congratulatory telegram jointly issued by the party's central committee, the State Council and the CMC.
"The delivery and commissioning of the first carrier is a milestone in the PLA's history and embodies a major achievement in China's weaponry and equipment development, as well as its national defence modernisation," Wen said.
Hong Kong-based China observer Jonny Lau Yui-siu said Xi's absence could be the result of careful deliberation by Beijing's leadership to tone down the ceremony. "Xi himself would also rather keep a low profile as he hasn't really consolidated his power and political status in the army," he said.
There has been speculation the Liaoning may serve in the East China Sea Fleet because of escalating tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls the Senkakus. But Senior Captain Li Jie of the People's Liberation Army Navy's Military Academy, said there was no direct connection.
"We don't need to use the Liaoning to solve the Diaoyus dispute because carrier development is a long-term strategic plan, not something for short-term purposes," Li said. The carrier would be directly managed by the navy's headquarters.
Xu Guangyu , a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing, said the carrier could cruise any waters along China's 18,000-kilometre coastline.
He believed the naming and commissioning was held before Monday's National Day as a "deliberate move" to lessen its political impact.
Formerly an uncompleted Soviet carrier known as the Varyag, the vessel arrived from Ukraine in March 2002.
Both Xu and Li stressed it would take several years for the Liaoning to be turned into the flagship of a carrier battle group. Antony Wong Dong, chairman of the Macau-based International Military Association, said it could acquire real combat capabilities as early as 2015. "There is a key role still missing on the platform - carrier aircraft, likely to be the Jian-15," Wong said. A mock-up of a Jian-15 plane was on board for two of its 10 sea trials, he said.