Aircraft carrier Liaoning begins drills in sensitive South China Sea with battle group
China's first aircraft carrier begins first battle formation training drills in the politically sensitive waters of the South China Sea
China's first aircraft carrier has set off for training exercises in the politically sensitive waters of the South China Sea.
It is the first time the Liaoning has carried out drills in the area, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.
Beijing is currently embroiled in a diplomatic row with Japan after Chinese forces set up an air defence zone over the East China Sea over the weekend which includes disputed islands also claimed by Tokyo.
Watch: The South China Sea dispute explained
The Liaoning was escorted by two guided missile destroyers, the Shenyang and the Shijiazhuang, as well as two advanced missile frigates, the Yantai and the Weifang as it left the port of Qingdao yesterday, a report posted on the PLA navy website said.
The Liaoning has conducted more than 100 exercises and drills since it entered service in September last year, but almost all were conducted in the Yellow Sea near the carrier's home base of Qingdao. It is the first time the carrier has conducted a drill as part of a battle group.
The report said the training mission was aimed at testing Liaoning's weapons systems. It did not say how long the drills would last. Previous missions have practised take-off and landing procedures.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the Liaoning battle group had chosen the South China Sea due to its political sensitivity and because its deep water was ideal for big ships to operate.
"The PLA's biggest naval base is at Sanya in Hainan , which is similar to the US' Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The Sanya base could provide comprehensive support to Liaoning in the coming drills," Wong said.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the exercises would involve a range of vessels and technology.
"Today's vessels with Liaoning all have anti-submarine and air defence functions. The formation will be perfected after the submarines and other vessels join the group," he said.
China bought the refurbished Liaoning from Ukraine in 2002.
Earlier this month, the carrier completed a 19-day drill in the northern Bohai Sea, with engineers on board successfully dismantling and assembling the engine of the carrier-based J-15 fighter jet for the first time.