China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) was recently seen making forays into volatile and contested waters with its aircraft carriers. These drills have been termed as “routine” by PLAN but are expected to have geostrategic implications due to the acrimony between China and its Indo-Pacific counterparts.
The Chinese aircraft carrier, Liaoning, conducted exercises in the Pacific Ocean, 300 km from the remote Japanese island of Kitadaito (Okinawa Prefecture). This was officially announced on December 21 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
According to him, the Liaoning, accompanied by five more ships, was sighted in the indicated area on December 19. On the morning of the same day, an exercise was held there with the participation of carrier-based aircraft: J-15 fighters and Z-9 multipurpose helicopters.
In particular, the Japanese department published photos of the takeoff of the J-15 from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
4-ship #Chinese #Navy strike group led by #carrier #LIAONING 16 passed south of Japan 15 Dec into the western Pacific. Type 055 #destroyer NANCHANG 101, Type 054A #frigate RIZHAO and Type 901 supply ship HULUNHU 901 are with the carrier https://t.co/KU4uwuDMeg pic.twitter.com/QyUSYis8gc
— Chris Cavas (@CavasShips) December 19, 2021
Prior to this, the ships passed between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako in the direction from the East China Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
Japan, in response to these actions, sent a helicopter carrier Izumo there on a reconnaissance mission and dispatched its fighter jets to escort Chinese the aircraft.
Simultaneously, the PLA Navy’s second aircraft carrier ‘Shandong’ entered the contested South China Sea to conduct realistic combat-oriented drills in an undisclosed location. The drills were reported to include arrested landing of fighter jets, damage control, and maritime search and rescue, as reported by Global Times.
? China's second aircraft carrier the Shandong recently set out for realistic combat-oriented drills in the South China Sea pic.twitter.com/d6nrJhuhGJ
— OSINT Updates ? (@OsintUpdates) December 20, 2021
In fact, the simultaneous drills conducted with the two aircraft carriers in Chinese inventory have made experts speculate dual-carrier group-led drills to be conducted in the not too distant future.
However, Liaoning drills could be seen as a Chinese message to Japan and its western allies. Japan had recently announced an increase in its defense budget owing to the Chinese threat in the region.
It has also been forthcoming to Taiwan’s defense against China, a proposition that Beijing views as aggression against its One-China policy.
China’s Venture Into Pacific
Last week, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force spotted a PLA Navy flotilla consisting of four warships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, the Type 055 large destroyer Nanchang, the Type 054A frigate Rizhao, and the Type 901 comprehensive supply ship Hulunhu, which then passed through waters between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island and sailed south toward the Pacific Ocean, according to Japan’s Ministry of Defense, as reported by Global Times.
According to the press release issued by Japan, the PLA carrier battle group conducted helicopter takeoff and landing drills from ships in the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, as well as fighter jet takeoff and landing operations from ships in the Pacific Ocean.
China’s Liaoning carrier group were spotted passing the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako Island and heading towards the Pacific on 16/Dec. Japan sent destroyer and patrol aircraft to monitor and gather information on Chinese navy group.
(Source from Bilibili/铁幕防务） pic.twitter.com/D2FwPdJuS4
— 彩云香江 (@louischeung_hk) December 19, 2021
In response to this, Japanese warships and aircraft sought to track the Chinese vessels, notably the Izumo helicopter destroyer, which completed modifications and became a de facto aircraft carrier this year. The Chinese presence close to Japan’s islands is seen as detrimental to its own security and defenses by Tokyo.
This is not the first time when China has taken this route from the East China Sea to the Pacific Ocean through Miyako. In April this year, as China increased the intensity of intrusions into Taiwan’s airspace and became more belligerent towards it, this route was used twice in the backdrop of exercises conducted near the island.
At the time, a PLAN spokesperson had announced that similar exercises could be conducted on a regular basis. Liaoning’s battle carrier group transiting could be with the ambition to conduct more drills near the Taiwan Strait.
Kitadaito Village in Okinawa Prefecture, southwestern Japan, had previously advocated for the Self-Defense Forces to be sent to the island. Last week, this decision was unanimously passed by the Assembly. Chinese exercises, just over 300km from this island, are expected to expedite the SDF’s deployment here.
The call for deployment came even as Japan’s Self-Defense Forces deploy units to the country’s southwestern islands in order to boost the country’s defense capability in the region. The SDF had earlier sent units to Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture in 2016, and Miyakojima Island in 2019. The Japanese troops are scheduled to be deployed to Ishigaki Island soon.
The Kitadaito Island is about 360 km away from the main Okinawa island that houses the American military bases. Chinese presence anywhere near here and its military drills are expected to set alarm bells ringing, from Japan to the United States.
Japan faces the twin challenge of North Korea and China, while it remains locked in a dispute with Russia on the Kuril Islands.
As Chinese belligerence against Taiwan grows, Japan’s concerns regarding its security are expected to rise. The region remains the new epicenter of tensions and both China’s power projection and Japan’s defense modernization are expected to see an upward trajectory.