The Liaoning has already undergone extensive trials at sea. Premier Wen Jiabao said the ship would have "a mighty and deep significance". This significance will be mostly symbolic I expect. The U.S. for example has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world put together and they are much larger and more sophisticated than a refitted Soviet era ship such as the Chinese have. However, the Liaoning does send a signal to other countries that China has growing ambitions and is expanding its naval strength. The new ship may also send a message to countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam over claims to disputed islands.
It will take considerable time for the Chinese to learn how to operate a carrier and how to operate with other ships. Using the vessel first for training makes sense. No doubt China wants to point to its expanding naval power as it braces for a leadership change.
The Chinese defense ministry
said in a statement:
"Having the aircraft carrier enter the ranks will be of important significance in raising the overall fighting capacity of our nation's navy to a modern level...The vessel will increase [China's] capacity to defend, develop its capacity to co-operate on the high seas in dealing with non-traditional security threats and will be effective in defending the interests of state sovereignty, security and development".
The Liaoning began life in the 1980s
as the Varyag constructed for the Soviet navy but never completed. A company associated with the People's Liberation Army purchased the ship before it was sold for scrap. The company intended to turn the Varyag into a floating casino in Macau and towed it to China in 2001. However in June 2011 the Chinese military announced the ship was being refitted as an aircraft carrier.
Building up the Chinese navy is part of a larger move to modernize China's military in order to project military power as well as economic power throughout the region. However, China is far behind many countries. The U.S. spends almost as much on its military as all other countries combined. China does not even have aircraft or pilots trained for operating on an aircraft carrier. Some critics have said that aircraft carriers are outmoded
already and building them a waste of money. While this may be true of countries such as the UK, many would claim the carriers are quite useful to countries such as the U.S. who project their power on a global scale.