China Shows Off Aircraft Carrier Drills, To Sail Into Contested South China Sea
China’s military said on Saturday that its first aircraft carrier group conducted a series of previously unannounced fighter launch, recovery and air combat exercises in the Yellow Sea ahead of a scheduled voyage farther afield. China Radio Intl, citing military sources, said that a naval formation consisting of China’s first, and so far only, aircraft carrier Liaoning, several destroyers and frigates was on training and testing missions last week. The activities also involved several J-15 carrier-borne fighter jets and helicopters.
A J-15 carrier-borne fighter jet is landing on aircraft carrier Liaoning during a
training mission in the Yellow Sea on December 23, 2016. [Photo: Navy.81.cn]
CRI reports that, “on Friday, several J-15 took off from the Liaoning, carrying out assignments including air refueling and air confrontation in the Yellow Sea. The training was guided by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Commander Wu Shengli. The training “strengthened the synergy among different vessels in the formation and refined its overall capability.” China said that the training and tests were normal arrangements in accordance with annual plan made by the navy.
Demonstratively showing off the drill with a 90 second clip, state broadcaster China Central Television on Saturday showed footage of the Liaoning launching a large contingent of J-15 fighters. The navy’s top commander, Adm. Wu Shengli, was shown onboard watching the exercises.
The Liaoning, commissioned by the Chinese navy in 2012, first sailed to the South China Sea in 2013, when it docked at a navy base near the Chinese holiday resort of Sanya. The vessel at the time was not outfitted with a full aircraft complement. The Liaoning carried out its first live-fire exercise last week, with the military releasing video footage that showed Chinese J-15 fighters launching missiles and hitting targets.
Beijing has said the carrier, built from an incomplete hull from Ukraine, would be used mostly for training and research as it prepares to deploy its first home-grown carrier, but it is widely viewed by analysts as a strategic piece in China’s increasingly assertive claims in the South China Sea.
What is disturbing, and hints at further diplomatic escalations between Beijing and Washington, is that the Defense Ministry announced late Friday that the Liaoning carrier group conducted the drills in the Yellow Sea in recent days, then adding that the group “as a next step will conduct scheduled cross-sea training and tests.” The ministry did not specify its destination, but its “cross-sea” wording has prompted speculation in the Chinese media that the warships could soon sail to the contested South China Sea.
The state-run Global Times newspaper quoted a well-known military analyst on Saturday as saying that the South China Sea would be an “ideal” next location because joint exercises could involve with troops on reefs controlled by China. This means that the hotly contested area where a US underwater drone was “stolen” by China last week is likely about to get hotter with the arrival of China’s one and only aircraft carrier group.
As AP adds, the growing capabilities of the carrier group and its movements have been closely watched since the Liaoning was declared combat-ready last month.
The dispatch of the carrier into the Nine-dash zone will mean that diplomatic tensions over the South China Sea, where the U.S. and China accuse each other of engaging in a dangerous military buildup, are about to deteriorate further. China claims nearly all of the sea and is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons.
Meanwhile, as reported two weeks ago, the U.S.-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative think tank said this month that satellite imagery showed China building large anti-aircraft guns on artificial islands in the contested waters, where China has also laid airstrips, built communications facilities and deployed suspected missiles.
China has characterized its moves as defensive in nature and accused U.S. warships of making provocative passes through the region.
Meanwhile, a quick look at the latest positioning of US aircraft carriers, amphibious ready groups, and other navies around the globe shows a gaping hole in the region of the East or South China Sea, and even in proximity to Japan, a place where the US navy traditionally has maintained at least one carrier group. In fact, according to Stratfor, the only active carrier group is USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CSG, conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe.
We anticipate that if not Obama, then certainly Trump will soon dispatch at least one, if not two, carriers to the contested South China Sea, where Chinese and US navies are likely to see further peaceful face offs in the coming months.