China’s first aircraft carrier is now ready for combat, state media said Tuesday, a key breakthrough as the Asian giant seeks to flex its naval muscle in waters far beyond its shores.

The Liaoning carrier, which had previously been portrayed in Chinese media as a surface platform for tests and training, has now “formally been described as having a real combat capacity,” the state-run Global Times said.

The report cited the the Liaoning’s political commissar, Li Dongyou, as saying that the carrier is “constantly prepared for war.”

“As a military force, we are always prepared for war and our combat capacity also needs to be tested by war,” Li said. “At this moment, we are doing our best to promote our strength and use it to prevent war, and are prepared for actual combat at any time.”

The report, and a selection of training photos displayed on official Chinese military websites, appeared to indicate that the ship had taken on its full accompaniment of aircraft.

The Liaoning, which was purchased as an incomplete Soviet-made hull from Ukraine in 1998, was commissioned in 2012.

China is also in the process of constructing its first indigenously built carrier, which the Defense Ministry said late last month was proceeding smoothly, with the hull having already been assembled.

The Liaoning differs from the aircraft carriers of other countries in both size and capability, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank’s China Power blog.

“Although its overall capability is hindered by its comparatively inefficient power plant and underpowered aircraft-launching system, the Liaoning represents an important step in advancing China’s ability to project naval power,” the blog said in an analysis.

China has not revealed its plans for the Liaoning, but the carrier is likely to put more muscle behind Beijing’s moves in the disputed South China Sea.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims.

China has reclaimed more than 1,280 hectares (3,200 acres) of land on seven features it occupies in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly chain. The U.S. says the man-made islets give it long-term “civil-military” outposts from where it can project power.

In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China’s expansive claims to much of the strategic waters. Beijing blasted the ruling, calling it “waste paper.”

The U.S. has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the waters, much to the chagrin of China. The last such operation came in October.

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