Back in November 2011 some observers argued that the deal Australia struck with Washington to allow US Marines to rotate through Darwin was not strategically significant in itself. But the way the decision was framed, in the context of Obama's visit to Australia and the announcement of the Asia pivot, gave the agreement symbolic weight, these observers argued.

We might make a similar argument today after seeing footage of the commissioning of China's first aircraft carrier. As many people are pointing out, the ship itself has no immediate military value; it will take years for China to master carrier aviation, and even then the vessel will be a sitting duck for submarines.

But symbolically, the commissioning of this ship matters. The NY Times reports that the ceremony comes in the midst of preparations for China's Communist Party Congress, 'and the public unveiling of the carrier appeared to be part of an effort to forge national unity ahead of the event.' There's also the regional angle. With tensions rising between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, Chinese officials pointedly noted that the carrier would 'protect national sovereignty'.

The emergence of this carrier should not be read as a frontal Chinese challenge to US power in the Asia Pacific. It is instead a 'starter carrier' which might, with the launch of follow-up vessels, eventually lead to a truly impressive military capability. But for the next few years at least, it is really just a symbol of prestige which, at best, will allow Beijing to lean on its weaker neighbours.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence forum.