China’s first home-built aircraft carrier the Shandong has sailed through the Taiwan Strait for the first time since being commissioned last week, in a move seen as a flexing of military muscle against the self-ruled island ahead of its presidential election.
The carrier, accompanied by its frigates, transited northwards through the waterway on Thursday, Taiwan’s defence ministry said in a statement, without saying whether the group was closer to Taiwan or to the Chinese mainland.
“Their entire activities were monitored by our military and we are sure to protect the country’s safety and regional peace and stability,” the Taiwanese statement said.
It was not the first time the vessel had passed through the sensitive waters separating the mainland and the self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a breakaway province and has threatened to use military means to bring into its fold. Then known as Type 001A, it passed through the strait on November 17 to conduct “scientific trials and routine training” before heading to the South China Sea.
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Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the transit by the now-commissioned Shandong was meant to send a warning to Taipei, with President Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, seeking re-election in January 11’s elections.
“The Shandong, together with China’s first aircraft carrier the Liaoning, can form a dual aircraft carrier strike group, and the passage through the Taiwan Strait can reward the group with both intelligence and experience needed for a real combat situation,” Song said.
“This [operation] means that the Taiwan Strait and the entire territory of Taiwan are within the training scope and combat scope of the two aircraft carriers.
“Taiwan authorities should realise that if they go ahead with seeking independence or military provocation, it can only be a dead end.”
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The Shandong is likely to team up with its sister ship to form a dual-carrier battle group to try to cut off foreign military access to Taiwan during a war, according to Beijing-based monthly magazine Naval and Merchant Ships.
In addition to the Liaoning and the Shandong, the dual-carrier group would include two Type 055 guided-missile destroyers, the region’s most advanced destroyer; four Type 054 frigates; six guided-missile frigates; one supply ship; and three Type 093B nuclear submarines, according to the report.
Beijing has called Taiwan “the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations” and has bolstered its military presence near the island, holding large-scale “encirclement” exercises and bomber training throughout last year and into this year.
The Shandong was commissioned in Sanya, in the southern island province of Hainan – China’s gateway to the South China Sea – in a ceremony overseen by Chinese President Xi Jinping and officials from the Southern Theatre Command on December 17.
The ship is able to carry 36 J-15 fighter jets compared with the Liaoning’s capacity of 24, although it may carry fewer than its capacity allows. Military experts said the new warship would be able to carry 40 aircraft in total, including Z-9 helicopters and KJ-600 early-warning planes.