On Monday, eight Chinese warships, led by the aircraft carrier Liaoning of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, passed between southern Japan’s Okinawa island chain in a show of strength that state media described as “preparation for missions that include a potential military conflict across the Taiwan Strait.”
According to accounts from the Japanese defence ministry and Chinese official media, the warships travelled between the main Okinawa island and Miyako island, and while there was no intrusion into Japanese territorial seas, helicopters on board the Liaoning carrier took off and landed.
These islands are part of the “first island chain” under Chinese naval doctrine, and sailing past them represents a power projection by the Chinese navy.
The Izumo, a helicopter carrier, as well as P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and P-3C anti-submarine aircraft, were despatched by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, or Japanese navy, to monitor the passage of the Chinese boats, according to a news release from Japan’s defence ministry.
The US 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan, is anticipated to keep an eye on the Chinese warships as they pass by.
The aircraft carrier group, which consists of at least eight warships, including destroyers, is the largest to head out to sea, “marking a significant combat capability boost in preparation for missions that include a potential military conflict across the Taiwan Straits,” according to experts quoted by the state-run Global Times.
The PLA Navy presently has two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, with a third anticipated to be commissioned this year.
According to the news report, the Chinese warships are expected to sail further east into the Pacific Ocean after passing through the Miyako Strait, or they could travel south through the Bashi Channel to the island of Taiwan and perform manoeuvres in the South China Sea, based on prior excursions.
Guided missile destroyers, a guided missile frigate, and the Type 901 comprehensive supply ship Hulunhu followed the aircraft carrier.
According to Japanese national station NHK, it was the first time a Chinese aircraft carrier had been reported to have sailed in the area since December last year.
The Chinese aircraft carrier group crossed the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and reached the Western Pacific via the Miyako Straits late last year, undertaking comprehensive operations in many domains aimed at improving the carrier group formation concept, according to a PLA announcement in December.
Taiwan is considered a renegade province by China, which has never ruled out using force to reunite it with the mainland.
In recent months, the PLA has routinely deployed warships and flown fighter planes in the Taiwan Strait as part of realistic military rehearsals, which are seen as a show of force by the self-ruled democracy.
China already boasts the world’s largest fleet, and according to a report from the US Department of Defense in 2021, Beijing aims to expand it from 355 to 460 ships by 2030.
The ongoing voyage and “realistic combat training mission” of the aircraft carrier Liaoning is also a message to the US-led Quad of India, Australia, and Japan, which Beijing has described as a “clique” attempting to suppress China in the Pacific maritime region.
China’s objection to the Quad was downplayed by India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar in February, who said the grouping will achieve “good things” and contribute to the development and stability of the critical Indo-Pacific region.
After meeting with the other members of the Quad — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Japan’s Yoshimasa Hayashi, and Australia’s Marise Payne — Jaishankar stated that criticising the Quad repeatedly would not make the four-nation organisation less credible.