The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is planning to expand their offshore blue water naval capabilities to expand their operational range beyond the traditional territorial boundaries imposed by the "first island chain". Coupled with the recent expansion of their Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and aggressive actions in the commerce-laden South China Sea, this development is unsettling to a number of regional actors and a number of American allied nations.
Here's a picture for reference:
This expansion is coming on the heels of a massive naval modernization effort that is central to the PLAN's future strategic goals and vision for its future. Central to this vision is the acquisition and development of aircraft carriers and aircraft carrier doctrine, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLAN have said that “any great power would want an aircraft carrier.” To this end, within the last few years the Chinese have purchased, refitted, and launched the Liaoning, their first carrier.
The Liaoning's hull hails from the Soviet days. When the Russians originally contracted the design (Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier, also known as the Kreml class) it was designated as a heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser. The Liaoning's sister ship Admiral Kuznetsov has been in service since 1990. After the end of the Cold War, it became possible for the United States to study the design and ascertain its performance characteristics long before the Liaoning was commissioned. As such, the Liaoning cannot have any performance secrets.
While having an aircraft carrier is impressive in its own right, the design utilizes short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) system, and this type of launch system imposes harsh restrictions on the airframes it could carry. The domestically-developed J-15 aircraft--a design stolen from the SU-33--will have a 120 square km operating radius when operating from their aircraft carrier, and weight restrictions of the STOBAR system means the aircraft cannot carry as much ordnance—making it less potent than if the same aircraft was shore-based. These restrictions limits the J-15 loadout to the point it can only fly one mission type at a time (i.e. only air superiority, or only CAS, but not both). These limitations have even led the state-censored media to criticize the nation's new symbol of power, because every carrier but the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov has a mixed air wing.
Between the refitted 25 year old hulk (the Liaoning was originally laid down in 1988 in Ukraine) and the fact that there is not yet a functioning air wing, the Liaoning is not currently much of a blue-water naval threat to anyone. Still, the Chinese are wasting no time using it to irritate their neighbors with ill-timed "training missions," though Rommel Banlaoi--the executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research--is on record saying "personally, I would not be overly concerned with an old diesel-powered aircraft carrier on a training mission."
While the Chinese are currently only using the Liaoning in operational training roles, it will be quite interesting to see what they learn, when they learn it, and what they'll do with that knowledge. The PLAN is supposedly intending to launch another carrier sometime around 2020, so we will not have to wait long to see.