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China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier is taking part in live-fire drills in the South China Sea. Photo: Handout

US keeps close watch as Chinese navy puts on show of force in live-fire South China Sea drills

Beijing flexes military muscle in test of Liaoning aircraft carrier’s combat readiness

The Chinese navy launched an unprecedented week-long series of live-fire drills in the South China Sea on Thursday, as three US aircraft carrier battle groups prepare for their own exercises in the Asia-Pacific region.

The drills overlap with this weekend’s  Boao Forum for Asia which starts on Sunday in the southern island of Hainan, not far from the site of the Chinese naval exercises. 

Military analysts said the drills, which involve the Liaoning aircraft carrier and more than 40 vessels from the North, East and South Sea fleets, were a show of China’s military muscle.

“China wants to show the outside world its determination to defend the fruits of its economic reforms over the past 40 years,” Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said.

“Like the US, China’s military might is one of the government’s political tools to protect the country’s national interests.”

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said it was the first time the Liaoning had taken part in live-fire drills.

“This will test the Liaoning’s real combat strength as well as joint-operations skills between the aircraft carrier and warships from other fleets,” Li said.

The exercises come as a  trade war brews between China and the United States, with the two countries announcing tit-for-tat tariffs on each others’ products earlier this week. 

The Pentagon has also sent three aircraft carrier battle groups to the Asia-Pacific region, with the USS Theodore Roosevelt flotilla arriving in Singapore on Monday for a regular port call after a deployment in the Middle East, according to earlier reports. 

The USS Theodore Roosevelt is moored at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on Monday. Photo: Reuters
China claims a large part of the  South China Sea as its own territory, but the waters are also contested by several neighbouring countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Satellite images showed the Liaoning flanked last week by at least 40 ships and submarines just off Hainan.

Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang confirmed the aircraft carrier would lead large-scale naval drills, but added that they were “routine” exercises in line with China’s “defensive” military policy and that its South China Sea activities posed no threat to other countries.

Military analysts said Beijing had stepped up naval deployment in the South China Sea in response to the US’ growing military cooperation with rival claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines. 

The USS Theodore Roosevelt sails through the Malacca strait on Sunday. Photo: Reuters
The USS Carl Vinson and its fleet  have just paid a first visit to the Vietnamese coastal city of Da Nang since the end of the Vietnam war, a move Chinese military experts said was aimed at countering Beijing’s influence in the region.

“The US’ increasing military presence in the South China Sea indicates that Washington sees Beijing as a serious competitor, not only economically, but also militarily,” Zhou said.

“But China realises that the military gap with the US is still very big, and all its military deployments in the South China Sea are basically defensive, including its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.”

China is believed to have deployed the DF-21D, dubbed the “carrier killer”, in the East and South China seas to fend off any possible US aircraft carrier battle group attacks on coastal cities, the country’s economic heartland. 

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Show of force in China’s live-fire drills