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Taiwan says Chinese carrier heading towards Hainan

TAIPEI A group of Chinese warships led by the country’s sole aircraft carrier is heading towards China’s southern island province of Hainan through the South China Sea, Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday, in what Beijing describes as a routine drill.

The carrier group has already rounded Taiwan, passing first between the southern Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa and then skirting southern Taiwan via the Bashi Channel, between Taiwan and the Philippines.

China has given few details of what the Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier is up to, save that it is on a routine exercise.

However, the drill comes amid renewed tension over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone call with the island’s president that upset Beijing.

In Taipei, a Defence Ministry official said the Liaoning was maintaining a southwest course towards Hainan, rather than heading deeper into the disputed South China Sea near the Spratly Islands that lie close to the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

“It is still heading southwest towards Hainan,” a senior Taiwanese military official told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.

The official said the carrier had not sailed close to Itu Abu, referring to Taiwan’s only holding in the Spratly Islands, and that Taipei continues to monitor its movements.

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 claims most of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

The Liaoning aircraft carrier has taken part in previous exercises, including 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 J.R. Wu; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)