A Chinese aircraft carrier, which raised eyebrows by undergoing overhaul and upgrades just over two years after its launch, held combat drills in the South China Sea with its full battle group, consisting of a flotilla of naval ships, including a nuclear submarine, as Beijing ratcheted tensions over Taiwan.
The Shandong — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s second aircraft carrier and the first domestically built — recently held comprehensive drills in the South China Sea in a group consisting of full combat elements, which analysts said showed that the carrier is becoming ready for far sea operations, state-run Global Times reported on Friday.
Shandong conducted realistic combat-oriented exercises in an undisclosed area in the South China Sea in early autumn to comprehensively test the force’s combat capabilities, the report said, quoting a PLA South Sea Fleet press note released on Wednesday.
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During the drills, the Shandong hosted take-off and landing operations of J-15 carrier-based fighter jets, and practised replenishment-at-sea operations, the press note said.
A video attached to the press note showed that the aircraft carrier manoeuvred in a combat group featuring a Type 055 large destroyer, a Type 052D destroyer, a Type 054A frigate and a Type 901 comprehensive supply ship.
Generally speaking, a nuclear-powered attack submarine would also be part of an aircraft carrier group, the report quoted a defence expert as saying.
Shandong’s drills in the South China Sea with full complement of its combat group comes at a time when China has ratcheted its military drills near Taiwan after the recent visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-level visit by a US official in 25 years, sparking off tensions in the region.
The report on the aircraft carrier conducting combat drills came as a number of US lawmakers have started visiting Taiwan after the high-stakes trip by Pelosi.
On Friday, US Senator Marsha Blackburn visited Taipei and called on Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
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Pelosi’s visit prompted China to launch the exercises that saw it fire missiles and send dozens of warplanes and ships over and around the self-ruled island, which Beijing says will be reunified with the mainland, even by force.
Beijing claims Taiwan a part of it under the ‘One China’ policy and takes umbrage against any official and diplomatic contacts by other countries with Taipei.
China also faced periodic forays by US naval ships, including aircraft carriers and planes challenging Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea and to assert freedom of navigation.
China claims most of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have counterclaims over the area.
The Shandong entered service with the PLA Navy in December 2019 in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province.
In April it had to undergo its first maintenance and comprehensive examination, upgrades and overhaul, according to official media reports, raising questions over its operational readiness.
Defence experts say that while China is producing aircraft carriers at a faster pace, it is still a work in progress for the J-15 carrier-based fighter jets, which were stated to be too heavy for deployment on aircraft carriers.
China is rapidly modernising its navy, almost launching a battleship every month or two.
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In June, China launched its third aircraft carrier Fujian, which was stated to be the most advanced as it has a catapult system called the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) for the aircraft to take off and land.
The system is used also on the US Navy’s Gerald R Ford-class carriers, according to the media reports.
Both Liaoning and Shandong are equipped with ski-jump take-off ramps, while the Fujian features a flat top flight deck.
Chinese President Xi Jinping who heads the military besides the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) has carried out extensive reforms of the military, including downsizing of the army and enhancing the role of the navy and air force as Beijing set its sights on global expansion with military bases in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
China has also taken over Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port for a 99-year lease and expanded and modernised Pakistan’s Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea.
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