BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s first aircraft carrier will carry out drills in the Western Pacific, in what the navy called part of routine exercises, amid renewed tension over self-ruled Taiwan that Beijing claims as its own.
The navy said in a statement late on Saturday the Liaoning, along with its accompanying fleet, would conduct “exercises far out at sea”, without giving details of the location or route, in what is likely its first blue-water drill far from home waters.
“This exercise is being carried out in accordance with annual exercise plans,” the navy said in a statement also carried on the front page of the official People’s Liberation Army Daily.
China’s successful operation of the Liaoning is the first step in what state media and some military experts say will be the deployment of domestically built carriers by 2020.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Sunday it had been monitoring the drills closely as the Liaoning went through the Miyako Strait, a body of water between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, heading into the Pacific.
It said it was monitoring whether the aircraft carrier would continue into the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines, on its return.
The Japanese Defense Ministry said on Sunday evening that a Maritime Self Defense Force ship and a P3C patrol airplane had spotted six Chinese naval vessels including Liaoning travelling through the passage between Miyako and Okinawa and into the Pacific.
There was no territorial incursion, the ministry said.
One Z-9 patrol helicopter that took off from a Chinese frigate flew near Miyako Island, prompting the scrambling of Japanese jet fighters, said the Japanese Defense Ministry.
Nikkei business daily reported that Japan had told China via diplomatic channels that it was closely watching the moves of the aircraft carrier.
China’s military conducted its first ever live-fire drills using an aircraft carrier and fighters in the northeastern Bohai Sea close to the Korean peninsula this month, and has more recently been in the East China Sea.
The navy showed pictures on its official microblog from the drills in the East China Sea, including J-15 carrier-borne fighter jets launching into the sky, overseen by navy chief Wu Shengli.
They conducted aerial refuelling and air combat exercises on Thursday, the navy said.
China’s growing military presence in the disputed South China Sea in particular has fuelled concern, with the United States criticising its militarisation of maritime outposts and holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.
The Western Pacific exercise comes amid new tension over self-ruled Taiwan, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone call with the island’s president that upset Beijing.
China’s air force conducted long-range drills this month above the East and South China Seas that rattled Japan and Taiwan. China said those exercises were also routine.
China’s Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier has participated in previous military exercises, including some in the South China Sea, but China is years away from perfecting carrier operations similar to those the United States has practised for decades.
Last December, the defence ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier but its launch date is unclear. The aircraft carrier programme is a state secret.
Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years, the Pentagon said in a report last year.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by J.R. Wu in Taipei and Nobuhiro Kubo in Tokyo; Additional writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait