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China brings its first aircraft carrier into service, joining 9-nation club


China's first aircraft carrier is decorated with colored flags at a shipyard in Dalian in northeast China's Liaoning province Monday.

China brought its first aircraft carrier into service Tuesday, raising the country’s military capability amid heightened tensions with its regional neighbors.

Christened Liaoning -- after the port where the carrier was significantly overhauled after being bought from Ukraine -- this new addition to China’s navy is not large compared to America’s super carriers, but could still potentially have an impact on territorial disputes in the region.

“The aircraft carrier will play an important role in China's settlement of islands disputes and defense of its maritime rights and interests,” said Chinese naval expert, Li Jie, in an interview with Chinese newspaper, People’s Daily.   

The rest of China’s state media also played up the significance of the Liaoning, with the China News Service writing that the Liaoning would have “far-reaching influence on protecting China’s territory, safety and development and to make the world more peaceful.”

Taiwanese ships clash with Japanese coast guard over disputed islands

The commissioning of the ship is a huge display of national prestige, elevating China to the nine-nation club of carrier-equipped navies.

Presided over by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, the unveiling of the Liaoning also comes just before a once-a-decade leadership change in China, during which a new generation of top leaders will be introduced.

China's Ministry of Defense welcomed the new ship, declaring that it would "raise the overall operational strength of the Chinese navy" and help Beijing to "effectively protect national sovereignty, security and development interests."

Japanese coast guard ships shoot water cannon at Taiwanese fishing boats in the East China Sea in a territorial dispute. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

The ship’s full capabilities remain unknown at this point, but the size of the Liaoning and China’s relative lack of technical experience with carrier operations suggests that it will serve more as a training vessel then a deployable ship for combat operations.

The carrier can reportedly hold a compliment of 30 fixed-wing fighters compared to the much larger American Nimitz class carriers than can carry around 90 aircraft.

China’s normally nationalistic newspaper, Global Times, warned yesterday that the Liaoning “does not have the capacity to handle its tasks as it needs more adaptation to enhance its fighting capacity.”

Japan infuriates China by buying disputed isles

Still, the Global Times and other Chinese media were quick to link the launching of the Liaoning with the ongoing tensions around the region. 

Japan has been locked in a bitter spat with China over ownership of islands claimed by both countries.

The Japanese central government’s move this month to purchase the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from their private owner led to heated nationwide protests in China that forced many Japanese companies like Panasonic, Toyota and Canon to suspend operations

Much at stake for US as tensions rise in troubled China Seas

While the protests have subsided, tensions have remained heightened. Just this week, China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Z|hang Zhijun told his Japanese counterpart, "China will never tolerate any bilateral actions by Japan that harm Chinese territorial sovereignty… Japan must banish illusions, undertake searching reflection and use concrete actions to amend its errors, returning to the consensus and understandings reached between our two countries' leaders."

Chinese protesters: 'The Diaoyu islands belong to China!'

Japanese embassy officials in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the Liaoning and ongoing territorial issues.

Tokyo has known for years about China’s aircraft carrier ambitions, but now must deal with the blowback of this announcement with an increasingly concerned and nationalist home audience.

With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda poised to call for new elections later this year, he can ill afford to look weak on Chinese intransigence in the East China Sea.

Emotional anniversary reignites anti-Japan protests in China

The odds of war breaking out between the two largest Asian economies remain remote, but there have been clashes in the waters around the Diaoyu islands, with Chinese and now Taiwanese fishing ships entering the island chain’s territorial waters, a move the Japanese view as an intrusion on their territory. 

Though the Liaoning was formally named Tuesday, the carrier has actually been decades in the making. The ship was built at a Ukrainian shipyard in 1988 and dubbed the Varyag. It was purchased a decade later by China and retrofitted.

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