Two days after China demonstratively showed off a live-fire exercise involving its one and only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in the Yellow Sea, with the Defense Ministry hinting that the carrier would next sail to the South China Sea after announcing that "as a next step it will conduct scheduled cross-sea training and tests," Beijing did just that and as Reuters reports, a group of Chinese warships led by the country's sole aircraft carrier passed south of Taiwan on Monday, and entered the top half of the South China Sea, in what China has termed a routine exercise.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry said the carrier, accompanied by five vessels, passed southeast of the Pratas Islands, which are controlled by Taiwan, heading southwest. The carrier group earlier passed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan's southernmost point via the Bashi Channel, between Taiwan and the Philippines. The Liaoning and five escorts sailed 20 nautical miles outside Taiwan's air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines on Sunday, the defense ministry said.
"The military has been on guard and fully monitoring the Liaoning. We urge the public to rest assured," the ministry said. Taiwanese media said an unspecified number of F-16 fighter jets and warships were deployed in Taiwan's ADIZ to closely watch the Chinese warships. The ministry declined to comment. "Staying vigilant and flexible has always been the normal method of maintaining airspace security," said ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi, declining to say whether Taiwan fighter jets were scrambled or if submarines had been deployed. Chen said the ministry was continuing to "monitor and grasp the situation".
Earlier that day, Japan's defense ministry said that eight Chinese vessels, including the carrier and three destroyers, were spotted by one of its ships in the central part of the East China Sea on Saturday afternoon. Japan's top government spokesman said on Monday the voyage showed China's expanding military capability and Japan was closely monitoring it.
Cited by Reuters, Senior Taiwan opposition Nationalist lawmaker Johnny Chiang said the Liaoning exercise was China's signal to the United States that it has broken through the "first island chain", an area that includes Japan's Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said people should not read too much into what the carrier was up to, as its movements were within the law and that China hopes other nations can respect the right of planes from its Liaoning aircraft carrier to fly where international law permits.
"Our Liaoning should enjoy in accordance with the law freedom of navigation and overflight as set by international law, and we hope all sides can respect this right of China's," she told a daily news briefing.
Chinese media has reported that the aircraft carrier was headed for the Pacific on exercise for the first time, France24 reported. The navy drills are seen as a show of strength by Beijing at a time of rising tensions with Taiwan and the United States following a protocol-breaking telephone conversation between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and US President-elect Donald Trump.
It was the latest in a series of recent exercises staged by China, after its military aircraft passed near Taiwan on December 10 for the second time in a month.
The state-run tabloid, the Global Times, said the exercise showed how the carrier was improving its combat capabilities and that it should now sail even further afield, going so far as warning that the "Chinese fleet would cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later", i.e., directly threatening the US zone of influence. To wit:
The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China’s aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the US one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules.
The distant sailing of the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet is not aimed at provoking the US nor at reshaping maritime strategic structure. But if the fleet is able to enter areas where the US has core interests, the situation when the US unilaterally imposes pressure on China will change.
China should speed up launching its new aircraft carriers so as to activate their combat.
Additionally, the Global Times warned that "in addition, China needs to think about setting up navy supply points in South America right now." One wonders how the US will respond once Beijing has opened its own port in Venezuela, or some other Latin American country within striking distance of the US, in exchange for "loan forgiveness."
The Global Times article closed off with the traditional jingoist propaganda: "Chinese people love peace, but the Chinese military must be resolute. China will not be easily irritated, but once it is, it will take firm countermeasures. The Liaoning and its fleet is expected to experience the cruel geopolitical competition and become a standard bearer of the Chinese navy."
China's anger had been provoked recently by U.S. naval patrols near islands that China claims in the South China Sea. This month, a Chinese navy ship seized a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea. China later returned it. The country's air force conducted long-range drills this month above the East and South China Seas that rattled Japan and Taiwan; Beijing said those exercises were also "routine."
Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years, the Pentagon said in a report last year; last December, the defense ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier but its launch date is unclear. The aircraft carrier program is a state secret. One thing is clear: if China indeed intends to engage the US, it will need to dramatically update and overhaul its existing carrier fleet (of one), which is based on an old Ukrainian carrier hull acquired years ago and refurbished mostly for symbolic purposes.