China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has reportedly reached its full capacity and is now ready to "fight against enemies" despite Beijing's earlier claims that that the carrier would be used only for testing and training purposes by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
According to local media reports, the carrier left its shipyard in Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province to start a new training mission. It is said to be marking a milestone for the Chinese navy which is reported to have made huge investments in the project over the last decade and could highlight China's ability far from its shores.
The carrier's political commissar, Senior Captain Li Dongyou, confirmed in an interview that the Liaoning is "constantly prepared to fight against enemies", the Global Times reported.
"As a military force, we are always combat ready and our combat capacity also needs to be tested by war. At this moment, we are doing our best to promote our strength and use it to prevent war. But we are preparing for actual combat at any time," Li said.
The Liaoning was commissioned into the PLAN in 2012 and was previously described as a "surface platform". It was originally laid down as the Varyag multi role aircraft carrier meant for the Soviet Navy in the 1990s, which ended up in the hands of Ukraine. China later bought the warship, which was an incomplete hull, from Ukraine in 1998 after it was auctioned off to a Chinese company. Back then, Beijing reportedly claimed it would use the vessel as a floating casino in the future.
However, the Chinese army refitted it for sea service and in 2011 it confirmed that China's first aircraft carrier was under construction.
It has now been formally described as having real combat capacity. Li said China has received a positive evaluation and feedback on the maintenance of the warship from three US officials who visited the Liaoning in the past during military exchanges.
However, he added that, "China still lags behind the US in technology and capability to execute missions".
While the PLA has not explicitly mentioned how it intends to make use of the Liaoning warship, it is reported to be seen as helping the communist country reinforce its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, especially at a time when it has been facing challenges from the US Navy with its freedom of navigation.
The Liaoning carrier is also seen as a training platform for officers and sailors of the PLA who will serve on China's swiftly expanding fleet, according to the Associated Press. The country is also reportedly currently building its second fully "homegrown" aircraft carrier.