The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Shandong Carrier Strike Group returned to the South China Sea on Friday, according to a release by the Japanese Ministry of Defense. At the same time, five of the eight PLAN surface ships that had entered the Philippine Sea Monday via the Miyako Strait returned to the East China Sea Friday by the same route. Meanwhile, Western media outlets are reporting that Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu is under investigation for corruption and will likely be removed from office.
In a Friday release, the Joint Staff Office (JSO) of Japan’s Ministry of Defense stated carrier CNS Shandong (17) was in the Philippine Sea from Wednesday to Thursday and conducted a total of 60 launches and recoveries of its embarked air wing – 40 J-15 fighters and 20 Z-18 helicopters. From Thursday to Friday, Shandong, along with several other PLAN ships, sailed toward the South China Sea. Though it did not detail which ships accompanied Shandong, the JSO on Wednesday stated destroyers CNS Guilin (164) and CNS Changsha (173), frigates CNS Xianning (500) and CNS Xuchang (536) and fleet oiler CNS Chaganhu (905) were with the carrier. Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer JS Ariake (DD-109) shadowed the PLAN CSG.
On Thursday, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) stated that from 6 a.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday, 68 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and 10 PLAN ships had been detected operating around Taiwan, with 40 of the aircraft either crossing the median line between Taiwan and China or entering Taiwan’s southwest air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Aircraft that entered the southwest ADIZ went on to conduct drills with the Shandong CSG. On Friday, Taiwan’s MND stated that from 6 a.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday, 18 PLA aircraft and 14 PLAN ships had been detected around Taiwan, with 13 aircraft entering either its southwest or southeast ADIZ.
Compared with its April deployment, which saw the operate a total of 19 days in the Philippine Sea and close to Guam and Japan, the current deployment saw the carrier enter the Philippine Sea on Monday and leave by Friday. On Monday, eight PLAN surface ships entered the Philippine Sea via the Miyako Strait. It was speculated that these ships would join Shandong for large-scale drills, though five of them – destroyers CNS Fuzhou (137), CNS Ningbo (139), CNS Xiamen (154), CNS Baotou (133) and CNS Shaoxing (134) – returned to the East China Sea under JSDM surveillance.
It is possible the PLAN was exercising its ability to rapidly surge ships, or that the drills were cut short or canceled because of the situation surrounding Defense Minister Li, who has not been seen publicly for two weeks. Both The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, citing unnamed U.S. officials, have reported that Li is under investigation for corruption.
Other PLAN warships also have transited straits around Japan during the past week. According to the JSO, from Tuesday to Wednesday, PLAN frigate CNS Weifang (550) sailed south through the Tsushima Strait from the Sea of Japan, entering South China Sea, while being monitored by fast-attack craft JS Shirataka (PG-829) and JMSDF P-1 MPAs from Fleet Air Wing 1. On Aug. 26, the PLAN frigate sailed back through the Tsushima Strait, returning to the Sea of Japan, the JSO stated.
On Thursday, the JSO stated that at 1 a.m. on Thursday, PLAN cruiser CNS Wuxi (104) and fleet oiler CNS Kekexilihu (903) had sailed south into the East China Sea, by way of the Tsushima Strait, while being monitored by minesweeper JS Hirashima (MSC-601) and a JMSDF P-1 MPA of Fleet Air Wing 1. The two PLAN ships had sailed north through the Tsushima Strait from Aug. 25–26.
At 9 a.m. Thursday, PLAN destroyer CNS Urumqi (118), frigate CNS Linyi (547) and fleet oiler CNS Dongpinghu (902) were sighted sailing southeast 93 miles north of Miyako Island, according to a JSO release, and continued on through the Miyako Strait to the Philippine Sea. Minesweeper Ukushima and a JMSDF P-3C Orion from Fleet Air Wing 5 monitored the PLAN ships, which ships form the PLAN 45th China Naval Escort Task Force and are heading to the Gulf of Aden to conduct antipiracy escorts.