Chinese President Hu Jintao has launched the country's first aircraft carrier into service, raising new concerns about Beijing's growing military strength.
Premier Wen Jiabao and other high-ranking officials joined hundreds of navy personnel in the ceremony Tuesday at Dalian port in northeastern China.
China bought the 300-meter Soviet-built vessel in 1998 from Ukraine and had it refitted at Dalian. It is named Liaoning after China's northeast province where the port is located.
The defense ministry said the aircraft carrier, is an important step in "raising the overall fighting capacity" of its naval forces.
China is involved in a major diplomatic dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, as well as disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. So its rapidly growing naval strength raises regional concerns. But officials say the carrier is no threat to its neighbors.
Yang Yi, a rear admiral and former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the PLA's National Defense University, said the carrier will be "mainly responsible for scientific research and training missions."
Writing in the official China Daily, Yang deflected international criticism of China's expansion of its naval forces. He said "it is natural that China should have its own aircraft carrier," arguing that all major world powers already own similar vessels.
China, the last permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to own an aircraft carrier, is also reported to be developing domestically built carriers.