Dozens of Chinese naval vessels are exercising this week with an aircraft carrier in a large show of force off Hainan island in the South China Sea, satellite images obtained by Reuters show.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen what is being labelled as the country’s largest naval military drill in the contested South China Sea.
Clad in military fatigues and as determined as ever to modernize the People’s Liberation Army, Xi on Friday presided over a large military parade involving the country’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
“Building a strong navy has never become so urgent as today. We will carry out the thought of building a strong military in a new era,” Xi was filmed telling service men and women.
The navy review is the largest of its kind in the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949.
The images, provided by Planet Labs Inc, confirm a Chinese carrier group has entered the vital trade waterway as part of what the Chinese navy earlier described as combat drills that were part of routine annual exercises.
Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy will conduct a live-fire drill in the waters of the Taiwan Strait on April 18, People’s Daily reported citing a navigation warning issued by Fujian maritime administration on Thursday.
Sanya maritime administration also issued a statement, saying the military training off Sanya, south China’s Hainan Province, concluded on Thursday.
The Liaoning carrier group last week traversed the Taiwan Strait, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry.
Also included in the tour de force were 10,000 personnel, 76 fighter jets, 48 naval vessels and a nuclear-powered submarine, according to the defence ministry.
Sailing in a line formation more suited to visual propaganda than hard military maneuvers, the flotilla was headed by what appeared to be submarines, with aircraft above.
Jeffrey Lewis, a security expert at the California-based based Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies, said the images showed the first confirmation that the carrier was joining the drills.
“It’s an incredible picture,” he said. “That’s the big news to me. Confirmation that, yes, the carrier participated in the exercise.”
While the Liaoning has previously entered the South China Sea as part of drills in uncontested training grounds south of Hainan, its annual exercises are closely watched by regional and international powers eyeing Beijing’s growing military might.
It is unclear where the flotilla was headed, or how long operations will last. China’s defense ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, described the deployment as unusual for its size and scope.
“Judging by the images, it does seem they are keen to show that elements of the South Sea Fleet are able to routinely join up with the carrier strike group from Dalian in the north,” he said.
“It does seem they want to show inter-fleet interoperability – something the (Chinese) navy has been quietly working on for some time.”
Chinese naval and coast guard forces have expanded rapidly in recent years and now patrol the vast swathes of the South China Sea, but little is known about their combat readiness and co-ordination.
Koh said as well as the destroyers, frigates and submarines that would ordinarily support a carrier, the flotilla appeared to include a large oiler for re-supply as well as smaller corvettes and possibly fast attack catamarans.
“While it highlights an extensive ability to deploy, we are still left to guess at the PLAN’s combat readiness,” Koh said.
As well as Vietnam, China’s claims in the South China Sea are disputed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei while Taiwan also has claims.
The exercises come amid fresh signs of tension in the resource-rich waterway, with Vietnam recently halting oil exploration off its coast by Spanish firm Repsol under pressure from Beijing.
Beijing also objected to a so-called freedom of navigation patrol by a U.S. warship last week close to one of its artificial islands in the Spratlys archipelago further south.