While at one point aircraft carriers were shunned by the Chinese as a "Western capitalistic venture", the nation has recently seen an about face on such thinking and have begun to look at the aircraft carrier as the symbolic power of any nation considering high seas expansion. In response to their ever-growing military reach in the Pacific-Asia region, the Chinese government began a program of acquisition of retired aircraft carriers from various national navies including those of the Soviet Union/Russia (the Minsk and Kiev) and Australia (HMAS Melbourne). These vessels then served Chinese engineers with the knowledge needed to field a viable carrier end-product all their own. The initiative formally paid off with the acquisition of the ex-Soviet Navy carrier Varyag.
Amidst mounting defense cuts by 1992, the Soviets decided to stop construction of their new carrier Varyag (of the Admiral Kuznetsov-class) and its rights were transferred to the authority of the Ukraine, now no longer under the control of the Soviet Empire. Some 70% complete, the vessel then languished for years without a true owner or purpose - essentially a hull ready for scrap or sale to the highest bidder. The vessel was finally sold - lacking any electronics, propulsion and operational facilities - for $20 million USD to the "Chong Lot Travel Agency" - long thought to be a state-controlled company set up specifically to procure such a vessel for the Chinese military through non-political means. The reason stated by the agency for the acquisition was that the hulk would be refitted solely for entertainment value, being converted to a floating casino and resort of sorts.
However, the Varyag was towed to the Dalian Shipyard in China and workers quickly set to work on converting her for military function under the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) banner. Since then, the vessel has gone under the microscope as Chinese engineers have been hard at work learning the vessel's internal and external framework, further modifying and bringing the vessel up to a usable military-minded standard. By 2005, the vessel was already covered over in the Chinese Navy paint scheme. A formal government announcement confirming the vessels purpose was made by a Chinese authority in June of 2011. On August 10th, 2011, it was announced that the ship - thought to be named "Shi Lang" (though since commissioned in 2012 as the "Liaoning" with pennant number "16") - was officially undergoing sea trials, essentially the final step before the vessel is formally delivered for service to the navy. It was initially expected that the Liaoning would enter operational service with the PLAN sometime in 2015 though an official commissioning has taken place in September of 2012 and is to be joined by a similar sister ship or two - these thought to be under construction in Shanghai as of this writing. Up to five such vessels may be in the works which, if completed, will give the Chinese the second largest carrier force behind the United States Navy (11). This development will undoubtedly provide the PLAN with a broader war-making capability and considerable influential power in the Pacific-Asia region.
Externally, the Liaoning retains much of the basic layout as the Varyag before her. The island superstructure is conventionally set to the starboard side of the vessel at amidships. The flight deck takes up most of her surface area with the distinct upwards sloping bow an identifying feature of this carrier class. The "ski jump" assists aircraft in achieving quicker take-offs from the short flight deck. There will be at least two hangar elevators along the starboard side - one ahead and the other aft of the island superstructure - to manage topside aircraft movements. Propulsion is thought to be conventional in nature, relying on steam turbines fed from boilers (8) to power four propeller shafts. Turbo and diesel generators also figure into the mix for top speeds of 32 knots and a range of up to 7,100 kilometers - giving the 2,600-strong crew up to 45 days at sea before needing replenishment. Perhaps future indigenous development will yield a nuclear-powered derivative.
The Liaoning's flight group will most likely be made up of the Sukhoi Su-33 "Flanker" fighters - either procured from the Russians or produced through the Shenyang concern which also produces an indigenous Chinese form of the Russian Su-27 Flanker (as the Shenyang J-17) and Russian Kamov Ka-31 "Helix" series naval helicopters. A typical flight wing may be split between 26 Flankers and 24 Helix helicopters totaling some 50 aircraft. Point defense of the vessel (beyond the air wing) will be handled by Type 1030 Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWSs) and surface-to-air missile launchers in addition to onboard radars and jamming equipment. 30mm anti-aircraft guns are also noted as are vertical launch missile cells and anti-ship rocket launchers. The full crew complement is expected to near 2,626 personnel including 626 associated to the air wing.
All told, the Liaoning will initially lack much of the fighting prowess and capabilities of the most powerful American nuclear carriers though - considering the military balance in the Asia-Pacific region - will make the PLAN a much more modernized and advanced fighting force, inching the region ever-closer to an arms race and - perhaps - total war at some point. Truth be told, Chinese naval warfare doctrine considering complex battle groups at sea is still in its infancy whereas the United States wrote the books on aircraft carrier deployment and usage in World War 2, bringing about the death of the fabled battleship. Additionally, Chinese military technology - both reengineered and locally developed - has been suspect for some time, bring to mind what may be perhaps limited inherent capabilities of the Shi-Lang.
PLAN sources have stated that the Liaoning will serve as more of a training school for development of a future, wholly-Chinese aircraft carrier development still to come. An announcement in July of 2011 by the Chinese attempted to ease nervous observers that the vessel was refitted for "scientific" and "training" use and not warfare. This has since of course been found to be false in true Chinese propaganda fashion. Regardless, the Chinese are not blind to the military build-up ongoing in places like Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore. Both India and Japan are expected to field no less than three aircraft carriers all their own in the coming decade, leaving China to either match or surpass those numbers on its own terms. A strong PLAN presence (particularly a carrier strike force) would also - inevitably - challenge the United States Navy presence in the Pacific.
The Liaoning (16) was officially commissioned in a government ceremony on September 25th, 2012 and is currently (2012) in active service in an around Chinese waters. Its presence is certainly meant to show force in a region where tensions have been mounting for decades.