By Greg Torode
HONG KONG, July 7 (Reuters) – – China’s first aircraft carrier sailed into Hong Kong waters on Friday in the latest show of the country’s growing military might at a time of heightened regional tensions.
Tourists and residents gathered early 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 several other naval ships from its strike group, with jet fighters and helicopters visible on the flight deck alongside hundreds of crew dressed in white uniforms.
“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, many unsuccessfully, for 2,000 tickets allowing access to the vessel this weekend.
Even though the former Russian naval ship remains a training vessel for China’s rapidly modernizing navy, its missions through tense regional seas have been closely followed in Hong Kong, which is more used to hosting U.S. carriers and other foreign warships.
“I think 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 behind him on a blustery morning.
U.S. consulate officials told Reuters that they have yet to be invited on board the Liaoning. The U.S. navy often hosts the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on ships visiting Hong Kong, sometimes flying local 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 northern 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 and Richard Pullin)