China's only operational aircraft carrier is making its first port call at Hong Kong – a symbol of Beijing's growing naval prowess that follows recent tensions with U.S. forces in the region.
The Liaoning, which carries a complement of Chinese-built J-15 fighter jets, steamed into Hong Kong harbor in the company of a pair of destroyers on Friday, news agencies reported.
Although the vessel is taking part in celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule over Hong Kong, its port call coincides with tense moments in recent days with U.S. forces in the South China Sea, as well as an expected meeting between President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany.
On Thursday, two American B-1B bombers from Guam flew over the South China Sea "asserting the right to treat the region as international territory despite China's claim to virtually all of the waterway," Reuters writes. The overflight came just days after China scrambled fighter planes and warships to intercept the USS Stethem, which had steamed close to the disputed Paracel islands, which Beijing claims as Chinese territory. China's Foreign Ministry called the presence of the U.S. destroyer "a serious political and military provocation."
The United States has also been pressuring Beijing to clamp down on North Korea's nuclear program since Pyongyang conducted its first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this week.
The South China Morning Post reports that more than 400 VIP guests from "military, political and business circles," including Hong Kong's new chief executive, Carrie Lam, and her two predecessors, were invited to tour the Liaoning ahead of the general public.
The carrier, anchored off Hong Kong's outer Lantau Island, is "flanked by a protective cordon of marine police craft and a locally-based Chinese navy corvette," according to Reuters.
The Morning Post notes that given the strictures of military secrecy, the VIP guests were surprised they were allowed to "take photos of two J-15 fighter jets inside [the Liaoning's] hanger." The news agency says that thousands of Hong Kong residents queued for 2,000 tickets to a more restrictive tour of the vessel over the weekend.
The Liaoning — originally built in the Soviet Union in the waning years of the Cold War — was purchased from Moscow in 1998 and refurbished at Dalian naval shipyard in northern China. It was commissioned in 2012 and declared "combat ready" by Beijing last year.