China’s first aircraft carrier led a flotilla of five other warships in exercises and training drills in waters east of Taiwan this week.
The Liaoning and its escorts passed through the Miyako Strait last Saturday and were tracked by Japanese Self Defense Forces. The Miyako Strait is the widest strait in Japan’s Ryukyu chain, spanning about 130 nautical miles between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako, and is the PLA Navy’s preferred route through the First Island Chain into the Western Pacific.
Some experts believe the drills are meant to demonstrate the Chinese Navy’s ability to break out into the wider Pacific, but the Ryukyus are heavily surveilled, and, in a conflict, adversary warships would be highly vulnerable to aircraft, mobile ground-launched missiles on the islands bracketing the strait, or submarines patrolling beyond it.
The exercises themselves have been interpreted in some quarters as a message to Taiwan and the United States, but the PLA Navy says it was part of a normal training plan. A statement by a navy spokesperson said that “It was a routine training exercise organized according to the annual work plan to test the troops’ training effectiveness and beef up their capability to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests,” and that future exercises would continue on a planned, regular basis.
This is likely true. Just as the Miyako Strait could prove a perilous route for PLA warships to pass through in a conflict, it is not clear what military objectives they would serve to the east of Taiwan, where they would be more vulnerable to coalition forces than inside the First Island Chain and under the cover of planes and missiles on the Chinese mainland.
Just as the United States has begun sending warships through the Taiwan Strait on a more regular basis to establish the practice as normal and non-threatening, the PLA Navy’s transits through the Miyako Strait and exercises in the Pacific are likely intended to fulfill training objectives and normalize China’s peacetime presence in the waters.
The choice of the Liaoning to lead the flotilla also suggests that China’s intent was to send a more generalized political signal to the United States, Japan, and Taiwan rather than communicating an explicit threat. Though China declared the Lioaning, built on a heavily refurbished Soviet hull, to be “combat ready” in 2016, it is still widely considered to be primarily a training and testing platform.