China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning , is leading the navy’s most powerful strike group to the western Pacific Ocean for a major year-end naval drill. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) said on Friday that the Liaoning was escorted by three of the country’s most powerful destroyers and two other vessels. Chinese defence experts said the departure indicated the People’s Liberation Army remained combat ready despite a surge in coronavirus cases throughout the country. The Japanese forces said that apart from the Liaoning, the Chinese group comprised the Anshan and Wuxi Type 055 Renhai-class stealth-guided missile destroyers , the Chengdu Type 052D guided-missile destroyer, the Zaozhuang Type 054A frigate, and the Hulunhu, the country’s biggest and most advanced replenishment supply ship. By early Friday morning, the vessels had sailed from the East China Sea through the Miyako Strait and entered the western Pacific. The MSDF said it also spotted four other Chinese naval vessels in the waters between Monday and Thursday: the Lhasa Type 055 , the Kaifeng Type 052D, the Kaiyangxing Type 815 electronic reconnaissance ship, and a Type 903 ocean-going integrated supply ship. The Type 055 destroyer is regarded as second in power only to the US Navy’s Zumwalt-class stealth ship and the PLA plans to have an initial batch of eight in service. All but one have been commissioned, with the latest, the Anshan and Wuxi, joining the North Sea Fleet of the Northern Theatre Command in April. Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said several nuclear-powered attack submarines were also likely to be escorting the carrier strike group. Song said the training exercise for the destroyer-dominated carrier strike group was likely to be helping the navy come up with standards for other carrier groups, given the Type 052D shared some of the most advanced ship-borne technology with the Type 055 vessels. He said a similar approach was taken with the country’s aircraft carriers, the Shandong and Fujian. “The Liaoning used to be the navy’s experimental training platform. Each combat tactic and approach tested on the carrier was meant to be used in a joint operations system that could also be adopted by other carriers,” Song said. Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Beijing-based Yuan Wang military and science technology think tank, said the inclusion of the two supply ships made the formation the navy’s most powerful carrier strike group so far, and suggested that the Liaoning group would conduct longer training exercises on the high seas this year and possibly into next year.’ “The Liaoning carrier group training is also a response to the US Navy’s increasing intrusion into waters near the Spratly Islands, showing them that the PLA is always ready to cope with the American’s provocation even when the Lunar New Year is coming,” Zhou said, referring to the islands known as the Nansha in China. “The navy has staged large-scale patrols and drills over the last decade since the US Navy started the so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.” He said the carrier strike group left its home port as Covid-19 infections spread across the country, but the crew had been quarantined for weeks before the outbreak as part of their regular procedures. On Friday, the official PLA Daily published a commentary calling on the armed forces to ensure “proper coordination” between pandemic control and combat-readiness. Song said the article reflected orders from the central leadership that the PLA be on high alert and ready to win traditional and non-traditional wars at the same time, with the latter a reference to the pandemic.