In an apparent show of force, China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, along with three of the country’s most powerful destroyers and two other vessels, entered the West Pacific on Friday to carry out a major year-end naval drill.
The drill comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific following strategic military posturing by the U.S. and its allies and Japan’s shifting away from its defense-only policy.
The Liaoning, which is the Chinese Navy’s first aircraft carrier, is being escorted by two Type 055 Renhai-class stealth-guided missile destroyers – the Anshan and Wuxi, along with the Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Chengdu, the South China Morning Post reported, citing a statement from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).
The carrier strike group also comprises the Type 054A frigate Zaozhuang and the Type 901 supply ship Hulunhu, which is China’s biggest and most advanced replenishment vessel, the report added.
Several nuclear-powered attack submarines are also likely to be part of the Liaoning strike group, Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, told the outlet.
By early Friday morning, the carrier group had reportedly sailed from the East China Sea through the Miyako Strait and entered the western Pacific region.
Japan’s maritime force reportedly spotted four other Chinese naval vessels between Monday and Thursday. They included the Type 055 Lhasa destroyer, the Kaifeng Type 052D, the Kaiyangxing Type 815 electronic reconnaissance ship and a Type 903 ocean-going integrated supply ship. It is unclear if these vessels are also part of the Liaoning group.
The carrier strike group is expected to conduct realistic military training exercises beyond the first island chain, practice coordinated joint operations and carrier-based fighter jet takeoffs and landings, the state-run Global Times reported. The training is significant as it comes amid reports that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is struggling to find enough trained pilots to operate its carrier-based fighter jets.
“The Liaoning carrier group training is also a response to the U.S. Navy‘s increasing intrusion into waters near the Spratly Islands, showing them that the PLA is always ready to cope with the American’s provocation even when the Lunar New Year is coming,” Zhou Chenming, a researcher with Beijing-based Yuan Wang military and science technology think tank, told SCMP.
The naval drill is also seen as an attempt by Beijing to demonstrate combat readiness despite a surge in coronavirus cases throughout the country. In line with Beijing’s order to maintain high alert, the official PLA Daily called on the forces to ensure “proper coordination” between pandemic control and combat readiness.
Amid tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, Chinese President Xi Jinping had earlier said the use of military power should be normalized to win regional wars.