When China sailed one of its two active aircraft carriers, the Shandong, east of Taiwan last month as part of military drills surrounding the island, it was showcasing a capability that it has yet to master and could take years to perfect.

As Beijing modernizes its military, its formidable missile forces and other naval vessels, such as cutting-edge cruisers, are posing a concern for the U.S. and its allies. But it could be more than a decade before China can mount a credible carrier threat far from its shores, according to four military attaches and six defense analysts familiar with regional naval deployments.

Instead, China's carriers are more of a propaganda showpiece, with doubts about their value in a possible conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan and about whether China could protect them on longer-range missions into the Pacific and Indian oceans, the attaches and analysts said.