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China launches aircraft carrier

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, officially entered naval ranks today the country’s Ministry of Defence announced, in a move that it said would help project maritime power and defend Chinese territory.

TOKYO/BEIJING – China sent its first aircraft carrier into formal service today amid a tense maritime dispute with Japan in a show of force that could worry its neighbours.

China’s Ministry of Defence said the newly named Liaoning aircraft carrier would “raise the overall operational strength of the Chinese navy” and help Beijing to “effectively protect national sovereignty, security and development interests”.

In fact, the aircraft carrier, refitted from a ship bought from Ukraine, will have a limited role, mostly for training and testing ahead of the possible launch of China’s first domestically built carriers after 2015, analysts say.

China cast the formal handing over of the carrier to its navy – attended by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao – as a triumphant show of national strength at a time of tensions with Japan over islands claimed by both sides.

“The smooth commissioning of the first aircraft carrier has important and profound meaning for modernising our navy and for enhancing national defensive power and the country’s overall strength,” Xinhua news agency cited Wen as saying at the commissioning ceremony in the northern port of Dalian.

Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply this month after Japan bought the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from their private owner, sparking anti-Japan protests across China.

“China will never tolerate any bilateral actions by Japan that harm Chinese territorial sovereignty,” Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun told his Japanese counterpart today as the two met in a bid to ease tensions.

“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.”

In a sign of the tensions, China has postponed a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties with Japan. But an official at the Japan-China Economic Association said Toyota Motor Corp Chairman Fujio Cho and Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of Japanese business lobby Keidanren, and other representatives of Japan-China friendship groups would attend an event on Thursday in Beijing.

The risks of military confrontation are scant, but political tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies could fester and worries persist about an unintended incident at sea.

“If blood is shed, people would become irrational,” Koichi Kato, an opposition lawmaker who heads the Japan-China Friendship Association and will travel to Beijing, told Reuters. (Reuters)

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