China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, made its maiden visit to Hong Kong to Hong Kong Friday, a symbol of the country’s growing military prowess and a reminder to the former British colony who is in charge.
The 1,000 foot long, 60,000-ton vessel arrived early in the morning at the Stonecutters Island naval base of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in the city. Its visit comes as part of a series of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997.
The Liaoning was accompanied by warships and Chinese-made J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter jets.
Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Hong Kong, and took a hard line against Hong Kong pulling away from Beijing. Xi issued a stern warning that the communist government would not tolerate any change to its authority.
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said on Saturday.
Xi’s visit included a military parade of more than 3,100 troops from the People’s Liberation Army, the largest such review since the handover.
Both last week’s military parade and today’s arrival of the Liaoning are seen as an increasing show of strength from China in Hong Kong, where the political environment has grown tense. Calls for greater democracy and autonomy have risen up over the past few years, with the 2014 Umbrella Movement shutting down parts of the city for 79 days.
The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, is a refurbished Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class cruiser initially launched in 1988. China rebuilt it and commissioned it into the navy in 2012.
China launched a second, domestically-made aircraft carrier in April, which is expected to go into service sometime in 2020. The country is still seeking to develop blue-water capability to operate globally across open oceans.
The Liaoning’s arrival is a further show of China’s increasing military presence on the global stage, particularly in the contentious region of the South China Sea where China has overlapping territorial claims with several countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Recent satellite images from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., show that China has nearly finished building three major military facilities on artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands chain.
China’s military has been growing rapidly over the past two decades; in 2016, its defense budget was around $146 billion, the second largest in the world and about a quarter of what the United States spends.
While many in Hong Kong express concern about China’s growing influence over their city, with tens of thousands protesting last weekend, the arrival of the enormous aircraft carrier has also been met with curiosity and enthusiasm.
Crowds began lining up overnight earlier in the week for the chance to receive one of 2,000 tickets to board the Liaoning during its five-day port call.
At the welcoming ceremony for the carrier’s arrival, Hong Kong’s newly inaugurated chief executive Carrie Lam said the ship would help Hong Kong recognize China’s military accomplishments.
“I believe this can let citizens experience the country’s military development, especially the development of the naval force,” Lam said. “This will greatly enhance Hong Kong citizens’ understanding and recognition of the country.”
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