The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning is on its way home after wrapping up a three-week naval drill under the close watch of foreign counterparts in the Western Pacific, with defence analysts saying the exercise was aimed at deterring Taiwan’s independence-leaning forces . The Liaoning, the Chinese navy’s first aircraft carrier, is expected to arrive at its permanent Qingdao port in Shandong province on the weekend. The carrier strike group, which includes at least another seven surface warships and an unknown number of submarines, will pause for a major maintenance break and rest for crew. Video footage of the exercise circulated on China’s WeChat social media platform showed pilots of carrier-based J-15 fighter jets conducting both day and night flight drills on the deck of the Liaoning. On Friday, Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said the Liaoning hosted more than 300 fighter jet and helicopter sorties in waters off Okinawa in the past three weeks, and the drills were likely intended to enhance the PLA Navy’s combat capabilities in open seas. Japan’s Defence Ministry said that besides the J-15s, Z-18F anti-submarine helicopters and Z-18J early-warning choppers also took part in the drills. China has not confirmed details of the exercises. Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing, said the video showed that all the pilots of the J-15s on the Liaoning deck took part in the high-intensity drill, which involved more sorties than the Japanese minister announced. “I estimated the pilots flew about 170 sorties in a week, if all the 24 J-15s on the ship were flying just once a day,” Zhou said. As world watches Ukraine, navies in the Pacific quietly raise tension The Liaoning reportedly can accommodate 36 aircraft – 24 J-15 jets, six Z-18F and four Z-18J helicopters and two Z-9C rescue copters. Zhou said the Liaoning aircraft carrier had been at full capacity since 2017 when it reached initial operational capability, the basic requirements for a combat-ready warship. “It’s a powerful deterrent targeting Taiwan’s ruling party and their pro-independence support forces,” he said. Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie agreed that the Liaoning exercise was a show of force. “The demonstration of the J-15s and Z-18s helicopters in the waters near Okinawa, where is also close to Taiwan’s eastern coast, were aimed at showing the PLA’s capability of blowing up the island’s assets at the two air force bases in Hualien and Yilan, in the event of a Taiwan contingency,” Li said. The Liaoning drills came as the US Navy’s Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group was deployed in the nearby Philippine Sea. The USS Ronald Reagan strike group also started heading to the same area on Sunday, soon after undergoing annual repairs at its home port of Yokosuka in Japan. Tensions in the area have risen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the US and its allies dialling up concern about the security of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province and has vowed to reunify, by force if necessary. “The drills also aimed at warning the American fleets in the Pacific and its close ally Japan, who are keeping a close eye on the whole exercises, not to intervene in the Taiwan issue,” Li said. At least seven ships are reportedly accompanying the Liaoning – a Type 055, the country’s most powerful and largest destroyer, three Type 052D destroyers, a supply ship and two other vessels – to form China’s biggest ever strike group. Quad team up to track ‘dark shipping’ and illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific Zhou said all the J-15s on the Liaoning had been upgraded since crashes in 2016 killed a 29-year-old PLA pilot and injured another. “The performance of the J-15 has been improved and stable since its flight control and radar systems were upgraded in 2018, and installed with the domestically developed WS-10 engines.” China is expected to launch its third aircraft carrier later this year. The Type 003 has a more advanced launch system than the Liaoning and Shandong and will host a catapult version of the J-15B , according to Zhou and Li.