China has launched drills in the western Pacific involving its Shandong aircraft carrier and dozens of warplanes, according to Taiwan’s defence ministry, in exercises analysts described as Beijing’s “largest” such manoeuvres in the region.
The report came on Wednesday as Beijing, which views self-ruled Taiwan as its own territory, steps up military and political pressure on the democratically-governed island in a bid to assert its sovereignty claims.
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In a statement, the Taiwanese defence ministry said it tracked some 35 Chinese warplanes, including J-10 fighters, around the island early on Wednesday. About 28 of them flew into the southwestern corner of the island’s air defence identification zone, or ADIZ, it said.
Some of them passed through the Bashi Channel which separates Taiwan from the Philippines “to the western Pacific to conduct joint sea and air training with the Shandong aircraft carrier”, it added.
The ministry also released an undated photo showing the Shandong – which entered the western Pacific for training on Monday – being monitored by a Taiwanese Keelung class warship.
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) September 13, 2023
There was no immediate comment from China on the drills.
But the country’s Eastern Theatre Command – which organises drills around Taiwan – said on Wednesday an “aviation unit” had carried out training “recently”, with a range of “thousands of kilometres”. It did not mention the island, however.
Separately, a senior official familiar with security planning in the region told the Reuters news agency that more than 20 Chinese warships, including Type 055 destroyers, sailed through the Bashi Channel and Miyako Strait into the Pacific on Wednesday.
The official described the Chinese naval manoeuvre, along with the training exercises by the carrier group, as an “obvious challenge” to recent military activities by Taiwan’s main security partner, the United States, which along with Canada sent warships through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday.
The official told Reuters that China wants to show the US “that they got the total control of the west of the first island chain” – a reference to the area which runs from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas.
The Financial Times, a British newspaper, meanwhile, quoted analysts describing the drills as China’s “largest-ever manoeuvres with an aircraft carrier in the western Pacific”.
Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, told the newspaper that “this is by far the largest number of ships we have seen training with any Chinese carrier so far”.
Su said the Liaoning and the Shandong, the two carriers the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has in service, have conducted several training missions in the western Pacific since 2021, but only with small groups of ships.
“The typical escort we have seen in the past has been four destroyers or frigates plus one support ship, so the numbers this time are much larger,” he said. “They are expressing their displeasure with the various military exercises that have been under way in their periphery.”
In recent months, the US and its allies have increased “freedom of navigation” crossings of both the Taiwan Strait and the disputed South China Sea to reinforce that both are international waterways.
For its part, China has been increasing its military operations around Taiwan, slamming what it calls “collusion” between Taiwan independence forces and the US.