China's military has confirmed that its first aircraft carrier, which is now ready to "fight against enemies", along with fighter jets recently conducted an air combat exercise in the Yellow Sea. The drills are also likely to be carried out farther afield in the country's maritime area — the South China Sea.
The exercises were carried out by the Soviet-built Liaoning carrier group in the open sea, China's defence ministry announced late on Friday (23 December). Taking forward its air force and maritime activities, the Liaoning will next "conduct scheduled cross-sea training and tests", it added.
While the ministry did not explicitly mention the destination of the drill, the words "cross-sea" has left Chinese media speculating it to be the heavily contested South China Sea.
Together with Liaoning, a fleet of destroyers and multiple groups of J-15 carrier-borne fighter jets conducted the drills while receiving orders from Wu Shengli, commander of the Navy of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), the Global Times reported on Saturday.
The navy added that the J-15 fighters took off from the aircraft carrier and conducted aerial refuelling and air combat exercises on Thursday.
It is believed that the next stop for the carrier could be in other parts of China's maritime areas, including the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. But the disputed South China Sea would be an "ideal" location as the joint drills could involve troops on reefs controlled by the communist government, the state-run tabloid quoted a military analyst as saying.
The growing capabilities of Liaoning and its movements are said to be closely monitored by China's opponents in the region, especially since Beijing declared last month that the carrier group was ready to "fight against enemies".
The Liaoning vessel was first commissioned by the Chinese navy in 2012. It first sailed to the South China Sea in 2013 but it was not outfitted with a full aircraft complement at that time. China had earlier claimed that the carrier would be used only for testing and training purposes, but it is widely viewed by critics as a strategic piece in Beijing's increasingly aggressive claims in the contested waterways.
China and the US have long been accusing each other of engaging in dangerous military confrontations in the region. Last week, the Soviet-built aircraft carrier conducted its first live-fire exercise and for the first time, J-15 fighters were shown launching missiles during the exercises.