China's first aircraft carrier entered service on Tuesday, but since it still has no planes aboard, the only primary use of the vessel is a signal of China's growing naval might. The Liaoning, as the carrier is called, has been in sea trials since last August, built on the retrofitted hull of the Soviet-made Varyag, which China bought from Ukraine. The closest thing Japan has to an aircraft carrier is a helicopter-carrying destroyer, so the commissioning of the Liaoning represents a significant, if for now sympbolic, advance in Chinese naval power against its rival. The Associated Press points out that a working air wing is still a long way off: "It will take years to build the proper aircraft, to train pilots to land in adverse weather on a moving deck, and to develop a proper carrier battle group." In the meantime, the ship is expected to be used mostly for research and training. But the ship's launch does "raise the overall operational strength of the Chinese navy," the Defense Ministry has said. The timing of that move is everything.

China and Japan have been locked in a diplomatic and economic standoff over sovereignity of a set of islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. Japan's government bought the islands from their private owners earlier this month, sparking displays of militant patriotism across China. The official coverage of its carrier launch didn't explicitly mention the ship's role in its dispute with Japan, but Rear Adminral Yang Yi's editorial in the state-controlled China Daily dropped a pretty pointed hint about what China hopes to gain out of the carrier launch: "When China has a more balanced and powerful navy, the regional situation will be more stable as various forces that threaten regional peace will no longer dare to act rashly."