China appears to have dispatched its sole aircraft carrier to the latest series of war games in the disputed South China Sea.
China’s playing war games with its aircraft carrier
Satellite images published by Reuters show the country's Liaoning carrier exercising with dozens of naval vessels off the coast of the southern island of Hainan on Monday.
More than 40 ships and submarines sailed in a parallel line formation, as they flanked the carrier in photos provided by American Earth imaging company Planet Labs Inc.
The Chinese navy announced last week that it would conduct combat drills in the South China Sea, without providing details.
The satellite images confirmed that the Liaoning, the country’s first and only aircraft carrier, had participated in the exercises, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
Minnie Chan, a military correspondent at the South China Morning Post, said that while the Liaoning had joined patrol drills before, it was the first time the carrier had been seen taking part in real combat exercises.
Beijing had likely chosen the South China Sea as the warship's first combat training ground in order to assert its territorial claims, she said.
“China is sending the message: if it goes to war tomorrow, the aircraft carrier is ready to fight,” said Chan.
China’s air force also said over the weekend that its fighters and bombers had carried out combat drills in the South China Sea.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims in the resource-rich waters.
And China's growing military might has made many neighbors nervous.
The Liaoning, which went into commission in 2012, has previously traveled to uncontested areas of the South China Sea.
Since 2013, it has repeatedly passed through the Taiwan Strait, which lies between mainland China and the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
The Communist government in Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of its own territory.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said the Liaoning had sailed through the strait last week, although it had stayed on the Beijing-controlled side.
The latest drills were held after President Xi Jinping pledged to protect “every inch” of Chinese territory in a nationalistic speech delivered to the parliamentary meeting earlier in March.
It also came days after a US Navy destroyer sailed near a China-built artificial island in the South China Sea on Friday.