China's first aircraft carrier was delivered and commissioned to the People's Liberation Army navy on Tuesday following successful sea trials.
A high-profile ceremony marked Liaoning entering the navy and China officially entering an elite global club.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao attended the ceremony, which was held in a naval base in the northeast port city of Dalian on Tuesday morning.
Right after the ceremony began at around 10 am, Hu presented a PLA flag and a certificate to naval officers.
Wen then read a congratulatory letter sent by the Communist Party of China Central Committee, the State Council and the Central Military Commission.
The letter says that China's first aircraft carrier will "be of great and far-reaching significance in inspiring patriotism and the national spirit and driving national defense technology".
Wen said that it "will also be of great significance in enhancing national defense and the country's comprehensive strength".
A banner providing a backdrop to the ceremony read: "Handover ceremony of type 001 aircraft carrier".
Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, announced the carrier's name as Liaoning and 16 was picked for its hull number. He also declared the ship was delivered and commissioned to the PLA navy.
After the ceremony, Hu and Wen inspected the Liaoning and talked with officers, technicians and workers who participated in refitting the ship.
China is the 10th country, and the last of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to have an aircraft carrier in active service.
The carrier, formerly the Soviet ship Varyag, underwent years of refitting to install engines, electronic equipment and weapons, as well as conducting a number of sea trials.
After entering service, the Liaoning will continue performing technological research, experiments and military training, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
The Ministry of National Defense said the addition of an aircraft carrier will greatly boost naval combat capability.
"This morning, Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, was officially handed over (to the navy) and entered naval ranks.
"Its entry to the ranks will enhance the modernization of the Chinese navy's comprehensive combat force and its defense capability," the ministry said in a statement on its website.
The Liaoning will help "effectively protect national sovereignty, security and development interests, and promote world peace and common development", the Defense Ministry statement said.
"The debut of the carrier at a critical time of rising tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands reflects Beijing's firm resolution to defend its territory," said Li Daguang, a professor with the University of National Defense.
Large warships are named after Chinese provinces or municipalities, and a two-digit hull number is usually designated to training vessels, said Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the Academy of Military Science of the People's Liberation Army.
Yin Zhuo, a senior expert with the PLA navy, said Liaoning was chosen because "the navy's first academy was in Dalian in Liaoning, while one of our first large naval bases was also in the province at Lushun. Our earliest destroyer division, which belongs to the North China Sea Fleet, was also established there. Liaoning is the cradle of the Chinese navy."
Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of the China Association for Military Science, said though the carrier will be mainly used for training and research, it will undertake combat tasks "when necessary".
Although it is not clear which of China's three fleets will be given command of the carrier, Luo said it should be under the direct command of the Central Military Commission, and the decision of which fleet it will belong to will be made based on defense needs.
In addition to the ship's name, the identity of its captain was revealed on Tuesday.
Zhang Zheng, who was born in 1969 in Changxing, Zhejiang province, said it was a great honor.
"Today, Sept 25, 2012, will be enshrined in history. The Chinese navy has stepped into aircraft-carrier era," he said on the deck of the Liaoning.
His partner, the ship's political commissar, is Senior Captain Mei Wen, who was born in 1965 in Hubei province.
Zhang had captained a frigate and destroyer and has studied overseas, according to Xinhua.
"When I received the flag from President Hu, my heart was full of sacred pride," Zhang said. "We will always bear our mission in mind and do our best to fulfill the duties."
More than 1,000 officers and sailors will be stationed on the Liaoning, and more than 98 percent of the officers have a degree or higher, according to Mei.
More than 50 officers have doctorate or master's degrees, he added.
Sailors said they felt honored to serve on the carrier.
"My life is now worthwhile that I can serve on our aircraft carrier," Lin Yuanfeng, a sergeant, said.
Servicewomen will also play active roles on the carrier, according to Xinhua.
"We have been doing de-rusting, painting, loading and unloading, all the tough work and we never regard ourselves as a special group here," said Wang Qi, a communications officer.
"The aircraft carrier is equipped with modern dining halls and a 24-hour hot water supply," she said, adding the vessel's modernity exceeds her wildest dreams.
Military enthusiasts had eagerly waited for this moment.
"I and three of my friends, also military enthusiasts, came to Dalian on Monday. We wanted to witness the great moment," a middle-aged man from Shenyang, provincial capital of Liaoning, who only identified himself as Liu, told China Daily.
"The feelings we have now are beyond expression. I think every Chinese person will be proud with this great news."
In response to some netizens' concerns over whether China had the ability to build a carrier, Major General Qiao Liang, professor at the Air Force Command Institute, said during an online interview with people.com.cn, a website of People's Daily, that "except for the vessel's hull that was made by the former Soviet Union, all the other things on the ship were developed and produced ourselves".
"Among medium-sized aircraft carriers around the world, it is no doubt that ours is an advanced one."
The carrier will pick fixed-wing aircraft, according to Du Wenlong.
"As a global power with increasing interests and responsibilities, China needs a blue-water navy as soon as possible, and the rapid establishment of several modernized carrier battle groups is of unparalleled importance," Wang Haiyun, former Chinese military attache to Russia and senior researcher at the China Foundation for International Studies, was quoted as saying by Globe, a magazine affiliated to the Xinhua News Agency.
"Considering our country's huge maritime area and the demanding tasks brought by China's status as a big power, it would be unusual if we don't have three to five carrier battle groups."
Military fans also said they are expecting more.
"I was very excited when I read the news on the Internet. The carrier will bring genuine peace to our country and it enables our navy to have an unprecedented strategic deterrence," said Qu Renming, a white-collar worker in Beijing.
"And after Liaoning, when can we see the next and more advanced aircraft carrier?"