China has sent its sole aircraft carrier into the western Pacific for the first time, navy officials said. The aircraft carrier Liaoning, accompanied by a battle group of seven other warships, will conduct "exercises far out at sea," the navy said without elaborating on its final destination.
"This exercise is being carried out in accordance with annual exercise plans," the navy said in a statement carried on the official People's Liberation Army Daily.
It will be the first blue-water drill for the aircraft carrier after the Liaoning conducted large-scale exercises off China's coast over the past month.
The Liaoning has conducted drills in the Yellow Sea in recent days, with J-15 fighter jets practicing takeoff and landing, air refueling and combat drills. The Chinese military earlier this month made available pictures and videos of drills in the Bohai Sea that involved the use of live ammunition for the first time.
Taiwan's defense ministry said on Sunday it observed the carrier group passing through the Miyako Strait, a body of water near the uninhabited Senkaku islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by Beijing and Taipei.
The naval drills come as China seeks to project its military power amid tensions with Taiwan and US President-elect Donald Trump breaking protocol in a telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen that drew condemnation from Beijing. China considers Taiwan to be a province and has sought to prevent diplomatic recognition of the self-ruled island.
China claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea, which is also claimed by other littoral states in the region. It has built up military bases on islands and inlets in the resource-rich strategic waters that have raised military tensions in the region, with the United States regularly conducting air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.
Earlier this month China's air force conducted long-range drills over the East and South China Seas, raising tensions with Japan and Taiwan. China said the exercises were routine.
Long way to go
The Chinese navy commissioned the Liaoning in 2012 after acquiring the incomplete hull of the Soviet-era aircraft carrier from Ukraine. In December 2015, China's defense ministry announced it would build a second aircraft carrier, but it is not clear when it will be completed.
Despite China's attempt to project power beyond its shores, military experts say its aircraft carrier capability is years behind that of the United States.
The United States has ten nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and is building two next-generation aircraft carriers.
cw/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters)