(CNN) — China's first homegrown large military transport aircraft has entered service, with the country's Defense Ministry calling it "a crucial step" in air power projection.
The Y-20, with a maximum takeoff weight of about 200 tons, officially joined the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in a ceremony Wednesday in the southwestern city of Chengdu, the ministry said in a statement.
Designed to transport cargo and people over long distances in challenging weather, the Y-20 -- powered by four turbofan engines -- is reportedly capable of flying 4,500 kilometers with a full load. Its range would extend to almost 8,000 kilometers when carrying 40 tons of freight.
The plane goes into service as the PLA eyes a greater role overseas.
The plane is part of a massive program to modernize China's armed forces, the world's largest, which includes the development of aircraft carriers, anti-satellite missiles and stealth fighters.
Nicknamed "Chubby Girl" because of its huge size, the plane goes into service as the PLA eyes a greater international role -- with China building its first overseas military base in Djibouti. However, China's neighbors, as well as Washington, are watching warily, with Beijing becoming more assertive in its stance on the South China Sea and other territorial disputes.
The Y-20 -- whose maiden flight took off in 2013 -- is often compared to the Boeing C-17, the large military transporter that has been carrying U.S. troops and cargo around the world for the past two decades.
Although the C-17 is bigger, Boeing closed its production last year, while China is in the midst of an ambitious program of upgrading its military hardware and considers the Y-20 a breakthrough in the country's aircraft development.
Some analysts view the timing of the Y-20's formal entry of service as a sign of China's plan to seek potential overseas buyers at this year's Farnborough International Airshow, to be held in England next week.