BEIJING (Reuters) - China's first aircraft carrier officially entered service on Tuesday and the Defense Ministry said it would help project maritime power and defend Chinese territory.
The handover of the vessel comes as China and Japan are embroiled in a dispute over islands they both claim and China is concerned over renewed U.S. military interest in Asia.
The carrier, called the Liaoning, was originally purchased from Ukraine and has undergone extensive renovation in the Chinese port of Dalian.
"The entry into the ranks of this aircraft carrier will raise the level of modernization of China's overall naval operational forces," the ministry said on its website (www.mod.gov.cn).
The Liaoning will help "effectively protect national sovereignty, security and development interests", it said.
However, military experts expect the carrier, named after the northeast province of which Dalian is capital, to have a limited operational role and to be used mainly for training.
It is, nonetheless, a point of pride for a major navy that has never had a carrier in its fleet.
"When all the major powers, and even some small and medium-sized countries, own aircraft carriers, it is natural that China should have its own aircraft carrier," Rear Admiral Yang Yi wrote in a commentary in the China Daily on Tuesday.
"China has vast sea areas and huge maritime rights and interests that it needs to protect, and China's growing overseas interests require a strong navy to provide security guarantees," said Yang, a former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the People's Liberation Army National Defense University.
The Liaoning will mainly engage in scientific research and training, Yang said, while adding it would also help China assert its military power.
"China is tough-minded and will absolutely safeguard its sovereignty and national dignity," Yang said. "We stand for peace, but we are not afraid of any threats or intimidation."
The row over the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, has strained relations between the neighboring economic powers and sparked anti-Japan protests across China.
Japanese coastguard vessels, Chinese surveillance and fishery patrol ships, and up to 100 Taiwanese fishing boats were in the area on Tuesday. Taiwan also claims the islands.
China is also worried about the U.S. military's recently adopted strategic "pivot" back to Asia after years of being focused on the Middle East.
The refitted carrier, originally called the Varyag, returned to Dalian in July after its ninth sea trial, state media said.
China is expected to launch its own domestically built aircraft carriers after 2015, military analysts say.
However, professional and amateur analysts who study satellite images of Chinese shipyards have been unable to find any evidence of construction.
In its annual report on the Chinese military published this year, the U.S. Defense Department said construction may have started on some components of domestically built Chinese aircraft carriers.
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)