BEIJING China’s first aircraft carrier will carry out drills in the Western Pacific, in what the navy called part of routine exercises, but 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 military has conducted its first ever live-fire drills using an aircraft carrier and fighters in the northeastern Bohai Sea close to Korea 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 practiced 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.
China’s successful operation of the Liaoning is the first step in what state media and some military experts believe will be the deployment of domestically built carriers by 2020.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)