BEIJING — China commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier on Tuesday, reaching a new milestone in its ambitions to build a modern navy capable of challenging American dominance of the seas, especially in the Pacific.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, presided over a commissioning ceremony at the Chinese naval base in Sanya, on the southern island of Hainan, where the vessel will be based, according to video broadcast on China’s state television.
From there, the new carrier will be able to project power throughout the disputed islands of the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait — a development that has been watched warily by the United States and other Pacific powers, including Japan and Australia.
“This is a major milestone for China,” said Matthew P. Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center For Strategic and International Studies in Washington who tracks the country’s military developments. “There are only a handful of countries capable of fielding aircraft carriers, and China now has two, which puts it in elite company.”
China has already begun a third carrier at a shipyard near Shanghai, and there are reports of plans for a fourth, which would make it second only to the United States, which currently has 10 aircraft carriers in service.
The new carrier, called the Shandong, is modeled after China’s first, the Liaoning, which was purchased from Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union for $20 million and furtively refurbished.
Liaoning joined the fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 2012, and while not yet tested in combat operations, it has provided the Chinese extensive experience in conducting difficult carrier operations, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power.
Both carriers are named after provinces in northeastern China. The new one is largely based on the first one’s Soviet-era design — with a distinctive sloping ramp for takeoffs — but it is believed to have included technological enhancements.
It was first put to sea in 2018 but appeared to endure difficulties during its sea trials that delayed its commissioning. As construction finished, the former general manager of the company that built it in the northern port city of Dalian, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., was arrested, tried and convicted of corruption. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in July.
The new carrier is designed to carry 36 J-15 fighter jets — the Liaoning has a capacity of 24 — as well as other aircraft and helicopters. The J-15’s, also copied from Soviet designs, have suffered a series of crashes that have called into question the country’s mastery of the technological challenges of naval aviation.
China’s two carriers are less sophisticated than the nuclear-powered fleet of the United States, but as symbols of global military power, they are significant achievements for a military that had for decades focused principally on land warfare.
Since taking office in 2012, Xi has overseen a sweeping modernization program of the powerful, tradition-bound military in China, and the huge expansion of the navy has been a centerpiece.
The navy “continues to develop into a global force, gradually extending its operational reach beyond East Asia into a sustained ability to operate at increasingly longer ranges,” the Pentagon’s report said.