In a statement on Sunday, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense announced that a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy aircraft carrier transited the Taiwan Strait in a southerly direction. The carrier appeared to have been the Type 002, the first indigenously designed conventional Chinese carrier, which is expected to enter formal naval service with the PLAN later this year or in early 2020.
According to the Ministry’s statement, the Chinese vessel was reportedly trailed by a U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel. The short statement did not include details on which U.S. or Japanese vessels were involved in pursuing the Chinese carrier.
The Taiwanese military scrambled fighters and ships to “ensure national security,” the Ministry of National Defense said.
Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force did not clarify which vessel was involved. A MSDF spokesperson cited by Channel News Asia said “he had no information about the movement of the Chinese carrier or any Japanese ships nearby.”
The transit of the Taiwan Strait came shortly after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced that William Lai, a prominent pro-Taiwan independence voice, will be her running mate in the 2020 elections.
“Just as @iingwen names her running mate & the campaign shifts into high gear, #PLA sends its new 002 aircraft carrier battle group into the #TaiwanStrait,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on Twitter, responding to the transit. “#PRC intends to intervene in #Taiwan’s elections. Voters won’t be intimidated! They’ll say NO to #China at the ballot box.”
The transit also occurred while Mark Esper, the U.S. secretary of defense, was in the region. Esper is in Bangkok for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus meeting. During talks with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea, Esper criticized Chinese coercive activities in the region.
“Beijing is increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives, at the expense of other nations,” Esper said. Since 1979, the United States’ unofficial relationship with Taiwan is governed under the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires U.S. presidents to support Taiwan by providing “arms of a defensive character.”
Chinese naval transits of the Taiwan Strait are not inherently aggressive, given that the international waterway does provide the fastest transit route between northern Chinese ports and ports off the South China Sea, but Taiwan closely monitors Chinese naval activities in these waters.
This year, other countries, including the United States and Canada, have conducted transits of the South China Sea with warships.
China currently has one commissioned and active aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a former Soviet Navy carrier that was refitted for Chinese use. The Type 002 (previously called Type 001A) was launched in April 2017 and is undergoing sea trials; the carrier has yet to receive a name.
Since 2015, China has been constructing the Type 003 carrier at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard. This carrier is expected to feature more advanced characteristics like an electromagnetic aircraft launch system.