China's first aircraft carrier has docked at its new permanent base in the northern port of Qingdao, where it will be responsible for operations in waters surrounding Japan and the Korean Peninsula, media reports said Wednesday.
Speculation has swirled over where the ship, christened the Liaoning, would call home. It officially entered service on Sept. 25 amid a series of maritime disputes between China and its neighbors, particularly Japan, with which it is engaged in a tense standoff over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Qingdao is home to China's Northern Fleet, which is responsible for operations in the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, parts of the East China Sea and the Bohai Gulf, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Beijing. Qingdao offers the country's longest breakwater to guard against catastrophic storms, and remains ice-free year-round.
The official Xinhua News Agency and Global Times newspaper reported that the carrier left its temporary base in the northeastern port of Dalian on Tuesday for the first sea trials of the year following a three-month refitting. Xinhua said weapons systems were tested during the voyage to Qingdao, but gave no details.
The Liaoning is a refurbished Soviet-era carrier purchased from Ukraine that China has described as an experimental model. China is believed to have plans to use its experience with the Liaoning to build four or more carriers of its own, one or more of which will be based at the southern island province of Sanya, which faces the South China Sea. China's claim to ownership of the entire South China Sea and its island groups is contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
While the Liaoning doesn't yet have an aircraft complement or battle group, the carrier program has been the most eye-catching element of China's comprehensive naval buildup, which also includes ballistic missile submarines, modern destroyers and a new generation of stealth missile frigates, the first of which was launched Monday at Shanghai's naval shipyard.
The navy conducted landings on the Liaoning in November using J-15 carrier fighters based on Russia's Su-33.