China’s military says its first aircraft carrier group has carried out a series of fighter launch, recovery and air combat exercises in the Yellow Sea ahead of a scheduled voyage farther afield.
The Defense Ministry announced late Friday that the Liaoning carrier group conducted the drills in the Yellow Sea in recent days, adding that the group “as a next step will conduct scheduled cross-sea training and tests.” The ministry did not specify its destination, but its “cross-sea” wording has prompted speculation in the Chinese media that the warships could soon sail to the contested South China Sea.
The state-run Global Times newspaper quoted a well-known military analyst on Saturday as saying that the South China Sea would be an “ideal” next location because joint exercises could involve with troops on reefs controlled by China. The growing capabilities of the carrier group and its movements have been closely watched since the Liaoning was declared combat-ready last month. Tensions have mounted in the South China Sea, where the U.S. and China accuse each other of engaging in a dangerous military buildup. China claims nearly all of the sea and is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons.
The U.S.-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative think tank said this month that satellite imagery showed China building large anti-aircraft guns on artificial islands in the contested waters, where China has also laid airstrips, built communications facilities and deployed suspected missiles.