China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, returned to its home port of Qingdao on Thursday after nearly a month of training on the high seas, the People’s Liberation Army said. According to military analysts, the warship was joined by at least five escort vessels, and the drills showed its crew had not been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and that it remained combat-ready. The annual cross-region drills included intensive and complicated air and sea operations, the official PLA Daily said in a post on social media on Friday. “The drills have further improved the real combat training level of the Liaoning carrier strike group, putting its systematic combat capability to the test,” the statement on WeChat said, without giving other details. It was the longest training session by China’s navy since the PLA resumed all large-scale drills in March, after they were suspended because of disruptions to transport and military resources across the country as the deadly new virus rapidly spread. Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said it was important for the carrier to get back to training activities. “The recent training by the Liaoning carrier strike group is very significant because it’s evidence that none of the 2,000 sailors and commanders on the ship have been hit by Covid-19, and neither have any of the other soldiers and personnel on the other warships and support units,” Li said. The coronavirus situation has eased in China, where the first cases were reported late last year, but it continues to spread across the globe and has infected more than 3.2 million people worldwide and killed over 233,000. Sailors on warships like USS Theodore Roosevelt vulnerable as coronavirus spreads The virus has also hit crew members on at least 40 US Navy warships, and Li said that left China with the only operational aircraft carrier in the region. “Since the four American aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific region have all been struck by the pandemic, China is the only country that can operate an aircraft carrier in the area,” he said. Taiwan’s defence ministry reported earlier that the Liaoning flotilla had sailed through the Taiwan Strait twice last month as it headed towards the western Pacific, prompting the self-ruled island to scramble aircraft and send warships to monitor its movements. Japan’s Ministry of Defence said the Liaoning was escorted by two destroyers, two frigates and a supply ship, and they had passed through the Bashi Channel, a waterway to the south of Taiwan, and headed towards waters east of Taiwan. As tensions continue to simmer between Taipei and Beijing, the PLA has stepped up activities around the island, which the mainland sees as part of its territory awaiting reunification. Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the latest naval drills were also aimed at heaping more pressure on Taiwan’s pro-independence forces as well as foreign countries seeking to intervene in cross-strait issues. Coronavirus: US ‘supports Taiwan joining WHO events’ in ministerial phone call “Taiwan’s pro-independence forces have become more active and are attempting to take advantage amid the pandemic,” said Song, a military commentator with Phoenix Television. “The Liaoning would play a major role in the PLA’s plan to unify Taiwan by force, so it’s necessary for the aircraft carrier strike group to get back to operations, step up training and send a warning to Taipei,” he added. Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at the naval academy in Taiwan, said the PLA Navy had regularly held drills in the waters east of the island in recent years to avoid surveillance by Taiwanese radar systems and US satellites.