A Chinese carrier strike group has conducted training drills and launched fighters in the South China Sea – a first for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Chinese officials confirmed on Tuesday in a state-controlled press report.
Aircraft carrier Liaoning launched Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighters during a transit far from its usual area of operation near its homeport of Qingdao on the Yellow Sea, read the report from the Xinhua wire service.
“A naval formation consisting of aircraft carrier Liaoning has conducted take-off and landing drills in the South China Sea on Monday,” read the brief report which noted the drills occurred during “complex sea conditions.”
The nature of the tests weren’t revealed by Chinese authorities, but video released from state-controlled CCTV showed the carrier was deployed with 13 J-15s fighters. The same video showed the J-15s launching in the Yellow Sea with clean wings – without any ordnance or external fuel tanks.
The carrier strike group – comprised of Liaoning, three guided-missile destroyers, two guided-missile frigates, an anti-submarine corvette and a fleet-oiler – was reported passing between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako-jima, according to a Dec. 25, 2016, Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) report translated by Navy Recognition.
Perhaps adding to the significance of the deployment, before passing between the islands the carrier played host to the head of the PLAN, Adm. Wu Shengli, according to the CCTV video.
The U.S. provided limited details on the Chinese deployment when asked by USNI News on Tuesday.
“We do not have specific comments on China’s recent naval activities, but we continue to observe a range of ongoing Chinese military activity in the region,” read a Pentagon statement provided to USNI News on Tuesday.
“The United States recognizes the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries in accordance with international law.”
One naval analyst told USNI News the strike group deployment could be more about political messaging than military practicality.
“These latest drills provide our first insights into how China will likely be using their aircraft carrier in the near future. Rather than extended power projection in far-off waters, the Chinese appear more likely to use the carrier, at least initially, as a demonstration of regional muscle – sending a message that they are willing to back up talk, policy, or rhetoric with a show of strength,” Eric Wertheim, author of U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World, told USNI News on Tuesday.
“The Chinese carrier is an important symbol of their power for both a domestic and international audience. As their skills begin to improve, their carrier could also potentially provide a temporary boost to their own military and aviation capabilities in contested areas like the South China Sea.”
The deployment of the carrier strike group – the most ambitious yet for the PLAN – comes as President-Elect Donald Trump has made overtures directly to Taiwan in the last several weeks, including speaking directly with the country’s president.
Beijing has not been apologetic on the deployment.
“Aircraft carriers are strategic tools which should be used to show China’s strength to the world and shape the outside world’s attitude toward China,” an editorial in state-controlled Global Times read, reported The New York Times.
“As China’s only aircraft carrier fleet now, it should have the ability and courage to sail further.”