By Greg Torode
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's first aircraft carrier sailed into Hong Kong waters on Friday, its latest show of growing military might at a time of rising regional tension.
Tourists and residents gathered to catch a glimpse of the massive carrier on its maiden visit to Hong Kong, part of celebrations marking 20 years since the handover of the city from British to Chinese rule.
The Liaoning was accompanied by two destroyers and other ships from its strike group, with jet fighters and helicopters visible on the flight deck alongside hundreds of crew dressed in white uniforms.
Anchoring off Lantau island in the harbor's outer reaches, the carrier was flanked by a protective cordon of marine police craft and a locally-based Chinese navy corvette.
Police boats sounded horns to prevent private vessels getting any closer than a few hundred meters of the Liaoning.
"The Liaoning's visit shows that China is a militarily superior country," said Jack Chan, a retired businessman, who was watching the aircraft carrier from an oceanfront park.
Thousands of Hong Kong residents queued for hours on Monday for just 2,000 tickets for access to the vessel this weekend. Many left empty handed.
China's first domestically built carrier was launched in April but is not yet operational.
Even though the former Russian naval ship is being used as a training vessel for China's rapidly modernizing navy, its recent voyages through tense regional seas have been closely followed in Hong Kong, which is more used to hosting U.S. carriers and other foreign warships.
"Liaoning's visit definitely gives the central government a chance to display its military power. It's quite a positive and smart strategy to step up publicity overall," said Sean Moran, a tourist from the United States, as the ship passed on a blustery morning.
U.S. consulate officials told Reuters they had yet to be invited on board the Liaoning. The U.S. navy often hosts People's Liberation Army officers on ships visiting Hong Kong, sometimes flying Chinese military chiefs to aircraft carriers.
The Liaoning's most recent drills at the weekend included operations in the Taiwan Strait that were closely monitored by Taiwan's military given recent tensions with Beijing, which regards the island as a breakaway province.
With its Soviet-era takeoff ramp distinguishing it from the ordinary Hong Kong traffic of container ships and bulk cargo vessels, the 55,000-tonne Liaoning steamed down the congested East Lamma channel shortly after dawn.
Significantly smaller than the U.S. carriers that have long stopped in Hong Kong, the Liaoning started life as one of the Soviet Union's last carriers under construction, before being sold by Ukraine as a stripped down hulk to private Chinese interests in 1998.
The vessel was later refitted in a Chinese shipyard in what was seen by foreign military analysts as a key early test of China's naval modernization.
The Liaoning began sea trials as China's first aircraft carrier in 2011 and has more recently conducted fully integrated drills with its complement of J-15 jet fighters and a variety of support ships.
(Additional reporting by William Ho, Pak Yiu and Bobby Yip; Editing by James Pomfret, Robert Birsel)