BEIJING • China's newest military transport plane entered service yesterday, the country's defence ministry said, extending Beijing's ability to deploy its fighting forces around the world as it pursues a greater global role.
The announcement comes amid tensions mounting over territorial disputes between Beijing and its neighbours in the East and South China seas.
The Y-20 is the country's largest home-grown transport aircraft, a statement on the defence ministry's website said. The plane is intended for moving troops and cargo over "long distances in diverse weather".
Reports from its 2013 debut said the Y-20 has a maximum payload of 66 tonnes, which it can carry as far as 4,400km. With 55 tonnes on board, it could fly from western China to Egypt.
At the time, experts told Agence France-Presse that the true figures for the Y-20's maximum load and flying range were likely to be lower than those cited in state media due to the plane's reliance on a "very old" Russian-designed engine.
Y-20 FAST FACTS
MAXIMUM PAYLOAD: 66 tonnes
WINGSPAN: 45m to 50m
LENGTH: 44m to 47m
The plane's entry into service "marks a crucial step for the air force improving its strategic power projection capability", the official Xinhua news service quoted People's Liberation Army Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke as saying.
For decades, China stuck to a strategy articulated by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping of "hiding its strength and biding its time". But in recent years, it has expanded its military's reach and taken a hard stance on disputes on its periphery.
The construction of artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities in the South China Sea has raised tensions with rival claimants to regional waters, most notably Vietnam and the Philippines.
It has also earned the ire of the United States, which says a military build-up in the area will threaten the freedom of transit across strategically important international waterways. At the same time, China has played a significant role in international policing efforts. It is a major contributor to United Nations peacekeeping and has helped to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
In November last year, it announced it would establish a naval facility in Djibouti, the strategically vital entrepot on the Horn of Africa.
The new aircraft will be used for "safeguarding national security as well as domestic and international rescue and relief work", Xinhua quoted Mr Shen as saying.