China's sole aircraft carrier arrived yesterday at its permanent base in the eastern port city of Qingdao, Shandong province, home to the navy's North Sea Fleet that oversees waters surrounding Japan and the Korean Peninsula, according to state media.
The arrival of the vessel, named the Liaoning, appeared to indicate that the nation's first carrier base is operational after four years of construction.
Li Jie, a researcher with the navy's military academy in Beijing, said that stationing the Liaoning in Qingdao could also put pressure on Japan, which is engaged in island disputes with Beijing in the East China Sea.
"But there is no direct link between the base and the disputes involving the Diaoyu Islands [known in Japan as the Senkakus]," Li said.
There were a number of reasons for stationing the Liaoning in Qingdao, he said.
"First of all, the Qingdao port is much deeper and wider for our carrier's future training operations, as it was designed as a training and experimental platform." He also noted Qingdao's proximity to a shipyard in Dalian , Liaoning province, where the vessel could conveniently undergo repairs.
Stationing the carrier in Dalian would not be ideal because the shipyard also serves as a busy civilian port.
Qingdao remains ice-free year-round. The North Sea Fleet there is responsible for operations in the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan and parts of the East China Sea, as well as the Bohai Sea near Beijing.
Since its delivery to the PLA navy on September 25, the Liaoning has undergone a series of sea trials and experiments carried out by Dalian-based China Shipbuilding Industry, a state-owned corporation that spent more than 10 years refitting the former Ukrainian vessel.
Test flights of carrier-borne J-15 fighters were carried out in November.
Former Taiwanese defence minister and retired admiral Wu Shih-wen said there was still a long way to go before the Liaoning was combat-effective. He also said that the port at Dalian was not yet ready to be a support base.
"Operations on a carrier and at its home port are very difficult and complicated, as they involve co-ordination between different civilian and military teams on a series of logistical tasks," said Wu, who was also chief commander of the Taiwanese navy in 1997.
Still, Wu called Qingdao an "ideal training base".
Li said China needed to create additional bases for future carriers, and he pointed to the southernmost province of Hainan.
"For future development, it's a must for China to set up more carrier home ports along its 18,000 kilometre coastline. Hainan could be one choice due to its strategic location."