Tensions have quietly increased in the Western Pacific as China ventures into the waters while the world’s attention is on the Ukraine crisis. China sent its Liaoning aircraft carrier and seven escort ships for training through the Miyako Strait in early May, where the People’s Liberation Army Navy carried out battle exercises and staged more than 100 fighter take-off and landing operations near the Okinawa Islands. China’s deployment prompted Japan to scramble fighter jets and send its ship Izumo, which has been modified to become a de facto aircraft carrier, to follow and monitor the Liaoning’s exercises. While China and Japan engaged in an implicit tussle, three US naval vessels were deployed in the Western Pacific, according to images released by USNI News, a US naval news website, and Mizar Vision, a Shanghai-based satellite imagery company. An image dated May 16 from USNI News showed the US amphibious assault ship America deployed near the Japanese city of Sasebo, another assault ship USS Tripoli in waters east of Japan and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln sailing in the Philippine Sea. The nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan returned to Yokosuka on Thursday, according to Mizar Vision, which released a satellite image on the company’s official Weibo account the same day. In addition to warship movements, busy military operations were observed in the air. A US Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft was seen operating on a mission over the Philippine Sea on May 16. The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) said on its official Twitter account on Monday that the aircraft was “probably targeting at PLAN Liaoning carrier formation” and included a flight path image. Another RC-135 was observed flying over the Sea of Japan from April 29 to May 4, the SCSPI said in a separate tweet. China lashes out at US and Japan ahead of Biden’s Asia tour At almost the same time, China Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft have resumed patrols near Taiwan, according to Global Times , two months after this type of aircraft last appeared in the region. Ridzwan Rahmat, principal defence analyst at Janes, said the recent military movements in the region sent out different messages. “China has been honing its ability to operate carrier groups in the Western Pacific, and has increasingly deployed its newer and larger warships to accompany its carriers in the region,” Rahmat said. “The involvement of relatively newer surface combatants in the mission is an indication that China is keen to impart lessons, operating procedures and doctrines it has gathered thus far from the carrier group operations it has been conducting, to other newer units in the service that may have not been exposed to such missions. “Japan and the US have been increasingly deploying its larger warships to the same region too as it will be a probable theatre of operations should war break out between the US and China. Deployments at the moment are geared towards improving interoperability between military assets of the two countries.” However, Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst specialising in Chinese security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, saw all these as normal operating routines. “Navies worldwide exist to operate at sea, and to deploy to key areas of likely operations … [and] they do watch each other,” he said. “The deployment of the PLAN carrier Liaoning would certainly spark interest for the Japanese – hence the deployment of Izumo, which they call a DDG [guided missile destroyer], but in fact is really an aircraft carrier. The US Navy carrier task forces forward deploy as a matter of normal operations, but they’d be watching the Liaoning.” China warns Japan against joining forces with US Even though this particular ship deployment did not spark confrontation, tense conflict might occur in the coming years. Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, said that as the Chinese navy was bound to sail deep into the Pacific, encounters of major naval vessels at sea were expected to increase. “It’s predictable that the Chinese naval vessels will sail farther into the Pacific, as they have gained enough experience by exercises near its shores. And when they cross the first island chain, they will have a higher likelihood of meeting foreign vessels, especially the US warships,” Zhou said. The first island chain runs from northern Japan to Taiwan and down to the Philippines. On September 30, 2018, the Chinese Luyang II-class destroyer and the USS Decatur had a near-collision encounter near the Gaven Reefs by the disputed Spratly Islands, known in China as Nansha Islands.