After years of refitting and sea trials, China officially delivered its first aircraft carrier to the People's Liberation Army Navy in a ceremony Tuesday morning local time, attended by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and the country’s top military brass at a northeastern naval base in Dalian.

The Liaoning, bearing hull number 16, was handed over by the government-owned, Beijing-based China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, which built the vessel from the hull of the Varyag, a stripped-down Russian Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier that was bought by China from Ukraine in 1998. The country has two more carriers in the works.

The ceremony brings the world’s fastest-growing economy into the small club of countries with vessels capable of deploying aircraft from the sea. But the move is largely symbolic of the country’s naval ambitions -- it already has a formidable cruise-missile-based naval force, and it will take years for the country to build up its deck-aviation capability. 

"It has important significance in effectively safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development benefits and advancing world peace and common development," the Chinese Defense Ministry statement said, according to the Associated Press.

For the past year, the vessel has undergone a series of test runs of its various systems -- progress that has been watched closely by China’s regional neighbors, who dispute the country’s claim to a large expanse of water and islands in the South China Sea. The current dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to the northwest of Taipei is only part of a larger dispute over who controls the important shipping lanes that help link China to the Indian Ocean.

“The strategic purpose of China’s aircraft carrier fleet is mainly concerned ... with command of the seas stretching from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea,” wrote Wang Jyh-perng, associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies, in a column for Taipei Times in 2011. “The U.S. has used its aircraft carriers not only to project military power, but also to provide humanitarian assistance. If the U.S. can do that, there is no reason why China should not do the same.”

China believes it owns water from its southern coast down to Malaysia and between the Philippines and Vietnam, including waters deemed by multilateral conventions to be international, as well as maritime areas claimed by five Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia.

"I think as a symbol, the feedback that we receive in our dialogue throughout the region is that the regional partners regard this step by the Chinese in the midst of what has otherwise been a remarkable growth in their military capability as significant," Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee last year.

China has also sought to assert its naval presence vis-à-vis the United States, which has a strong naval presence in Asia and regularly performs exercises with regional partners, such as the November 2010 exercises with South Korea, which involved the USS George Washington, one of America's 11 nuclear-powered megacarriers, and the numerous ships in its battle group.