Beijing – China announced on Sunday that its aircraft carrier will carry out drills in the Western Pacific, in what the navy called part of routine exercises.
The drills come amid renewed tension over self-ruled Taiwan which Beijing claims as its own.
Chinese navy said in a statement late on Saturday the carrier Liaoning and its accompanying fleet, would conduct “exercises far out at sea”, without mentioning any further details on the location or route.
Sources predicted that the exercises could be the first away from home waters.
The navy released a statement on the front page of the official People’s Liberation Army Daily saying: “This exercise is being carried out in accordance with annual exercise plans.”
China’s successful operation of the Liaoning is the first step in what state media and some military experts say will be the deployment of domestically built carriers by 2020.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Sunday it had been monitoring the drills closely as the Liaoning went through the Miyako Strait, between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, heading into the Pacific.
The ministry said it was monitoring whether the aircraft carrier would continue into the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines, on its way back.
Reuters reported the Japanese Defense Ministry on Sunday evening saying that a Maritime Self Defense Force ship and a P3C patrol airplane had spotted six Chinese naval vessels including Liaoning travelling through the passage between Miyako and Okinawa and into the Pacific.
The Japanese ministry said there was no territorial incursion, adding that one Z-9 patrol helicopter that took off from a Chinese frigate flew near Miyako Island, prompted the scrambling of Japanese jet fighters.
Daily business newspaper Nikkei reported that Japan had told China through diplomatic channels that it was closely watching the moves of the aircraft carrier.
China’s military conducted its first live-fire drills using an aircraft carrier and fighters in the northeastern Bohai Sea close to the Korean peninsula this month, and has more recently been in the East China Sea.
The navy showed pictures on its official blog from the drills in the East China Sea, including J-15 carrier-borne fighter jets launching into the sky. It declared that the jets conducted aerial refueling and air combat exercises on Thursday.
China’s military presence in the disputed South China Sea in particular raised several concerns.
U.S criticized China’s militarization of maritime outposts and holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.
The Western Pacific exercise comes amid new tension with Taiwan, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone call with the island’s president.
China’s air force conducted long-range drills this month above the East and South China Seas which both Japan and Taiwan were anxious about. China said those exercises were also routinely.
Liaoning aircraft carrier, built in the former Soviet Union, has participated in previous military exercises, including some in the South China Sea.
China is years away from perfecting carrier operations similar to those the U.S. has practiced for decades.
Last December, the defense ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier but its launch date wasn’t declared. The aircraft carrier program is a state secret.