By Drake Long
China has sent an aircraft carrier battle group to the East China Sea and South China Sea, according to statements from governments in the region and satellite imagery.
The maneuvers come at a time of increasing tension in the South China Sea and a denouncement by members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the Chinese coast guard’s recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near the contested Paracel Islands.
Japan’s military reported China’s naval exercise involving the Liaoning aircraft carrier on Friday. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force said the Liaoning, accompanied by a battle group of two destroyers, two frigates and a support ship, passed through the Miyako Strait, between Okinawa and the Miyako Islands, on that day.
Satellite imagery shows the Liaoning at its homeport of Qingdao as of April 5, along with a Type 901 supply ship – a relatively new class of vessel for replenishing combat ships at sea. Last Wednesday, both sailed out of port and reappeared east of Shanghai, in the East China Sea, on Friday, along with escorts.
On Sunday, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the Liaoning battle group was observed moving off the island of Taiwan’s eastern coast down to its southern coast.
A Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy spokesman later confirmed the Liaoning and its battle group were engaged in a naval exercise at the Miyako Strait, the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan, and in the South China Sea. The ships were identified as two Type 052D guided missile destroyers, two Type 054A guided missile frigates, and a Type 901 support vessel.
This coincides with naval maneuvers in the region by the United States. The U.S. Navy sailed a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait on Friday, Reuters reported, and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted a bilateral exercise with the U.S. in the East China Sea on Friday and Saturday.
All this takes place in the aftermath of the April 2 sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in a confrontation with a China Coast Guard ship near the disputed Paracel Islands, which China maintained was the fault of the Vietnamese boat. The incident drew criticism from the U.S. State and Defense Departments, Vietnam itself and the Philippines.
Last week, the Philippine foreign office issued what it called a “statement of solidarity” with Hanoi. The statement rebuked Beijing for the incident in waters near the Paracel Islands – which both China and Vietnam claim.
It described the sinking as a “provocation” amid a global crisis around the COVID-19 outbreak.
China claims it has historical rights to much of the South China Sea, despite conflicting claims by other governments in the region.
Malaysia has had its own issues with Chinese ships in the South China Sea. In February, a combination of Chinese Coast Guard ships and maritime militia were monitoring and harassing energy exploration efforts by Malaysia in the mineral-rich waters.
US senators speak out
On Friday, a bipartisan group of senior U.S. lawmakers joined the chorus of disapproval.
Leading figures from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – Republican chairman James Risch, top-ranking Democrat Robert Menendez, and Republican Asia subcommittee chairman Cory Gardner and his Democratic counterpart, Ed Markey – issued a strongly worded statement over the sinking and China’s reported deployment of military aircraft in the South China Sea.
“The reports of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel and China’s other activities on illegally reclaimed features in the South China Sea are deeply concerning,” Risch said.
“These are just the latest examples of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) blatant intimidation of its neighbors to assert its excessive maritime claims. The CCP is undermining regional stability at a time when the international community should be coming together to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Menendez echoed that sentiment.
“China’s continued divisive and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is deplorable,” he said. “I strongly believe that the United States must stand up and support efforts by regional institutions and our allies and partners to ensure freedom of navigation and economic opportunity throughout the entire Indo-Pacific.”
On the same day the Liaoning was sailing with its escorts north of Taiwan, China conducted an aircraft exercise south of the self-ruled island, which China considers a “breakaway province.” A Xian H-6 bomber, KJ-500 early warning aircraft, and Shenyang J-11 fighter aircraft flew to the southwest of Taiwan, prompting the U.S. Air Force to send a reconnaissance aircraft in the same direction, according to a Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense press release.
Meanwhile, Chinese state media was blaming Vietnam for stoking tensions in the South China Sea after Hanoi formally protested the April 2 sinking of its fishing boat. Without providing any evidence, a commentary in the Global Times claimed that Hanoi was provoking anti-Chinese sentiment to distract from Vietnam’s domestic challenges in combating COVID-19.