HONG KONG/BEIJING - When a Chinese warship escorting the country's only aircraft carrier forced a US guided missile cruiser to take evasive action this month to avoid a collision, it was protecting an exercise rich in both military and political significance.
The drills off the coast of Hainan Island mark not only the first time Beijing has sent a carrier into the disputed South China Sea but the first time it has manoeuvred with the kind of strike group of escort ships US carriers deploy, regional military officers and analysts said.
"This is about China's naval capabilities but it has a definite political edge, too," said Ross Babbage, a former Australian government strategic analyst and founder of the Kokoda Foundation think-tank in Canberra.
"China is demonstrating its major power status to the region by sending its carrier into the South China Sea ... and the US is signalling in return: 'Remember we are still here and we are still the biggest player'."
The USS Cowpens narrowly avoided colliding with the Chinese warship while operating in international waters on Dec. 5, the US Navy has said. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday called the Chinese ship's actions "irresponsible".
China's official Xinhua news agency said the Cowpens was"warned" by the carrier task force, adding the US vessel was"intentionally" putting the Liaoning under surveillance.
The Chinese exercises - described by its navy as "scientific research, tests and military drills" - are due to end on Jan. 3.
China's military has said little else about them.
The Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the exercises.
The Liaoning - a Soviet-era ship bought from Ukraine in 1998 and re-fitted in a Chinese shipyard - has long been a symbol of China's naval build-up.
After two decades of double-digit increases to the military budget, China's admirals plan to develop a full blue-water navy capable of defending Beijing's broadening economic interests as well as disputed territory in the South and East China Seas.
Carrier strike groups sit at the core of those ambitions - and successfully operating the 60,000-tonne Liaoning is the first step in what state media and some military experts believe will be China's deployment of several locally-built carriers by 2020.
The Pentagon's annual report on China's military modernisation earlier this year said the first such carrier would not be operational until the second half of the decade.
While military analysts believe some preliminary construction has begun, no firm evidence has surfaced that the first keel has been laid down at the Jiangnan Shipyard on Changxing Island outside Shanghai.
China's precise plans for its carriers are a state secret.
"STARTING FROM SCRATCH"
Both domestic and foreign interest is focused on how well the Liaoning masters the core elements of a carrier programme.
That means not just the immensely difficult task of planes taking off and landing on its deck, but the naval strategy and doctrine required to operate, defend and supply a carrier.
"Carriers are a very tough, complicated and expensive business," one US officer told Reuters aboard the USS George Washington aircraft carrier as it exercised in the South China Sea last month.
"It has taken us years and years and years to get it right - and we are still working at it. China's starting from scratch,"added the officer, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Operating out of the port of Qingdao on the Yellow Sea, the Liaoning's early work focused on basic flight operations by J-15s, the Chinese jet fighters modelled on the Russian Su-33 and designed for use on the Liaoning's raised "ski jump" runway, according to Chinese media reports and blogs.
Its airwing is not expected to be fully operational until 2015 or later, according to the Pentagon report.
While it has been escorted by supply and other ships before, its departure for Hainan Island in the South China Sea on Nov. 26 marked the first time it had manoeuvred in open waters with a strike group - in this case the destroyers Shenyang and Shijiazhuang and the missile-equipped frigates Yantai and Weifang. It will use a naval base at Sanya on Hainan, which includes a purpose-built dock for the carrier, according to Chinese media reports.
Regional military attaches believe the Sanya facilities mean the Liaoning will be a regular visitor to the South China Sea.
Sanya is also home to one of China's submarine bases, which houses nuclear-powered attack submarines that could also be used to protect the carrier.
"This is hot stuff for us," said one Asian military attache in Hong Kong. "Here's China in the middle of the South China Sea figuring out how to integrate its carrier operations - so we are after anything we can learn on this."
DON'T GET TOO EXCITED
Nevertheless, Chinese analysts and parts of the state media appear keen to dampen expectations.
The situation looks similar to the clamour around the Liaoning's first sea-trials under a Chinese flag last year, when People's Liberation Army officers publicly hosed-down nationalistic expectations the ship would soon be sent to sort out territorial disputes with China's neighbours.
The Liaoning would serve as a training platform rather than a fighting weapon, said Shen Dingli, executive vice dean of Fudan University's Institute of International Affairs.
"The US can relax, it can go to sleep for the next 50 years. China will not match American competence," he said.
An article in the Communist Party-run China Youth Daily highlighted a string of weaknesses with the Liaoning, from its early warning systems to the weapons on its planes.
It also noted the importance of the "large-scale battle groups" that flank US carriers and the "organic cooperation"between those ships. "China's aircraft carrier is not yet up to that level," it said.
Considerable doubt also remains over when the Liaoning will be fully operational.
Earlier estimates of two or three years had grown rubbery, with some hints internally that it could stretch to a decade, said Gary Li, a Beijing-based senior analyst with the consulting group IHS Aerospace, Defence and Maritime.
"This is in part expectation management and in part not wanting to rush something as complex as a carrier group into service before it is ready - which arguably is worse than not having one at all," he said.