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The Liaoning (centre) takes part in a drill in the Pacific Ocean in April last year. The aircraft carrier and other Chinese vessels sailed through the Miyako Strait on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Chinese warship the Liaoning sails through Miyako Strait on way to Pacific Ocean for drills

  • Fuel supply ship and other naval vessels seen accompanying the aircraft carrier
  • Analysts expect navy to carry out exercises ‘to improve its fighting power and operations in areas it is not familiar with’

Chinese aircraft carrier the Liaoning passed through the Miyako Strait in the East China Sea on Tuesday on its way to the Pacific Ocean, where the navy is expected to carry out training.

Japanese defence officials said the warship passed between Okinawa’s main island and Miyako Island as it made its way from the East China Sea to the Pacific, without entering Japanese waters, national broadcaster NHK reported.

A number of other Chinese naval vessels, including a fuel supply ship, were seen accompanying the aircraft carrier. Japanese officials said the Liaoning may be about to hold drills and they were keeping an eye on the mission, according to the report.

Beijing said it was a routine training mission and had been conducted in accordance with international law, calling on other nations to respect its right of passage.

The last time the Liaoning was confirmed to have taken this route was in December 2016. At the time, Japan said the fleet included eight vessels and Japanese military aircraft were deployed to monitor the situation.

The warship sailed through the Miyako Strait before passing the east coast of Taiwan on its way to conduct naval exercises in the South China Sea.

During its return voyage – which took place when the self-ruled island’s President Tsai Ing-wen was visiting allies in Latin America – the Liaoning sailed through the Taiwan Strait, completing a circle around the island and prompting the Taiwanese military to scramble jets and send navy ships to “surveil and control” its passage back to Qingdao.

Analysts said the latest Chinese voyage through the Miyako Strait was part of training to improve combat readiness.

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Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the strait was “one of the quickest routes into the open western Pacific Ocean, where the PLA is expected to wage combat operations – especially in the Philippine Sea – in the event of a counter-intervention against American forces deployed from Guam in particular”.

“Such manoeuvres are aimed at familiarising the PLA Navy units with the operating environment as part of peacetime combat preparedness,” he said.

Song Zhongping, a former member of the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Corps, said it was not unusual for the Liaoning to carry out training in the western Pacific Ocean.

“Training cannot be done only at home. They need to strengthen combat abilities and carry out missions further afield – that’s crucial for an aircraft carrier,” he said. “Training is needed to improve its fighting power and operations in areas it is not familiar with.”

The training was expected to last for about two weeks, according to Zhou Chenming, a military expert in Beijing.

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The Chinese aircraft carrier strike group could also be seeking to gain further operational experience, according to Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a visiting professor at Pusan National University in South Korea.

“It could be holding some kind of naval exercises in or near the Pacific Ocean while also conducting their own freedom of navigation operations to test Japan and the US’ strategic and tactical reactions,” Ryo said.

“China’s objective is to achieve its anti-access and area denial strategy in the first and second island chains to gain access to the Pacific Ocean while also challenging the US’ air and naval supremacy in the Indo-Pacific – and also Japan’s growing air and naval capabilities,” he said.