BEIJING -- China's first domestically built aircraft carrier entered into service Tuesday, backing up Beijing's claims in the South China Sea from its home port on the southern island of Hainan.
Named the Shandong, the new conventional-powered carrier was commissioned at a ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping and about 5,000 military personnel and other guests.
State broadcaster China Central Television gave the event prominent coverage but carried little of Xi's remarks, perhaps out of deference to the U.S. and Asian neighbors with conflicting claims in the South China Sea.
Based at the port of Sanya, the Shandong is assigned to China's Southern Theater Command, whose operations extend to the South China Sea. The new carrier is also positioned to deploy in the event of a crisis around Taiwan.
Construction on the Shandong began in November 2013. It features the same curved "ski jump" deck as its predecessor the Liaoning -- a rebuilt Soviet-made ship -- designed to lift aircraft off a short runway. The ski jump deck allows aircraft to carry relatively little weaponry and fuel, but the new ship cannot yet deploy fixed-wing early warning aircraft, among other problems.
The Shandong "still does not have enough impact to upset the military balance between the U.S. and China in East Asia," a diplomatic source in Beijing said.
For the U.S., China's Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and the Dongfeng-26, nicknamed the "Guam killer," constitute a bigger threat than its fledgling carrier program. Yet Beijing has pushed ahead with the program to try to chip away at the U.S. lead in carriers.
In 1995-96, the U.S. sent two carrier groups into the Western Pacific in a show of force against China. Beijing was conducting missile tests in the Taiwan Strait in the run-up to the island's first direct presidential election, seeking to deter voters from choosing a pro-independence candidate. The crisis left an impression on China's leadership.
A Chinese shipbuilder in 2018 revealed plans to build the country's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, but the project has reportedly encountered delays and has no clear prospect for completion.