On Friday, China's first aircraft carrier and her strike group escorts berthed in Hong Kong, a potent reminder of Beijing's power at a time of tension over the extent of the port city's autonomy.
Naval analysts see the vessel – the Liaoning, a refitted Soviet jump-ramp carrier – as a symbol of China's blue-water ambitions, but not as a significant strategic asset. Like her sister ship, the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, she lacks catapults for launching fully-laden fighters, limiting the combat capability of her air wing. Still, the Liaoning has “coercive and intimidation value when dealing with smaller, rival claimant nations in the South China Sea," according to Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute, speaking with FT. And in Hong Kong, she provides a show of force at a time when China is seeking to remind the territory of Beijing’s authority.
Tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China have been building for years. In 2014, demonstrators took over much of central Hong Kong for months, demanding free and open elections for the city's next chief executive. However, the reform effort failed in the face of opposition from Beijing, and the winning candidate in 2017’s campaign was selected by a small “Election Committee.” In addition, Beijing has declared new measures to boost its control over the Hong Kong government, including the right to "supervise" civil servants' loyalty to China.
In the days leading up to the Liaoning's arrival, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong to congratulate the winner of the election and to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the end of British rule. In a keynote address, he had a warning for pro-democracy activists: "Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible," Xi said. He added that the government should improve public awareness of the laws that bind Hong Kong and China, "particularly among civil servants and the young people" – two groups that have not favored increased oversight from Beijing.