The Taiwanese air force and navy scrambled jets and ships early Wednesday morning as China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, entered the Taiwan Strait, presumably on a course due north after its December trip to the South China Sea for exercises.
The Liaoning was accompanied through the Taiwan Strait by a group of Chinese warships — presumably the same four that formed the carrier group that sailed in December from the Bohai Sea through to the Western Pacific to the South China Sea, transiting the Miyako Strait and the Bashi Channel in the process.
“We have full grasp of its movements,” Taiwan defense ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi said of the Liaoning‘s movements through the strait, according to Reuters.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense in December 2016, the Liaoning was accompanied by the PLAN Linyi and PLAN Yantai, Jiangkai-II-class (Type 054A) frigates with the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet, and the PLAN Zhengzhou, PLAN Haikou, and PLAN Changsha, Luyang-III-class (Type 052D) destroyers.
The Chinese carrier group ended its voyage in the South China Sea, at Hainan Island. The Liaoning did not sail near disputed islets in the Spratly or Paracel Islands.
The Taiwanese defense ministry did not offer an assessment of whether the Liaoning carrier group would stop for exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The group has been conducting regular carrier aviation exercises involving the Liaoning‘s airwing, which comprises Shenyang J-15 fighters.
The Liaoning‘s transit through the Taiwan Strait comes as tensions are high between Taipei and Beijing following Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent transit through the United States, where she met with prominent politicians. Tsai’s transit, which came as she was traveling to Central America, drew protest from Beijing.
Earlier in December, Tsai took the unprecedented step of speaking directly with U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump, which also drew a sharp reaction from China. Beijing condemned Tsai for playing a “little track” by reaching out to the U.S. president-elect.
December 2016 marked an unusually busy month for China’s sole carrier group. As I discussed last month in The Diplomat, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) is seeking to prepare itself for expeditionary carrier operations in the Western Pacific and beyond — if not with the Liaoning then with Beijing’s anticipated indigenous carrier, which may launch in 2017.