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China’s new aircraft carrier leads battle group into international waters

China’s newly combat-ready aircraft carrier has set off for the Western Pacific for an undisclosed “training exercise”.

“This exercise is being carried out in accordance with annual exercise plans,” the navy announced on the front page of today’s (Sunday, December 25) People’s Liberation Army Daily.

The statement said a navy formation including the Liaoning set off yesterday (Christmas Eve) for the Western Pacific, but gave no further details of its proposed route or purpose.

This comes at a time of mounting tension between China and the United States over the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory. Issues over the sovereignty of the South China Sea are also ongoing.

The Japanese Defence Ministry said it spotted the Liaoning as part of a fleet of eight warships that included destroyers and frigates, in the East China Sea for the first time.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said today that it was also monitoring the drills, and that the Liaoning had passed through the Miyako Strait, the body of water between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, before heading into the Pacific.

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It also speculated that the aircraft carrier would continue into the Bashi Channel, which lies between Taiwan and the Philippines, on its return.

Earlier this month president-elect Donald Trump held a telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first time an American leader has officially spoken to a Taiwanese president since Washington broke off formal diplomatic relationships in 1979.

To howls of outrage from Beijing, Trump later suggested that he could re-evaluate US policy on Taiwan.

Soon after, as we reported here, the Chinese seized a US Navy underwater drone in the South China Sea, in what was seen by some as a direct response to Trump’s words.

China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea is also a cause for concern, with the United States criticising its militarisation of maritime outposts and island building.

Daily flights now run from China to Woody Island in the Paracels.

In response, the US Navy has conducted regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.

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Earlier this week, we reported how daily flights are now running between from Haikou, the capital of China’s island province of Hainan, to Woody Island in the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. More details, read our report here.

Beijing said last month that its soviet-era aircraft carrier, which was purchased as an incomplete hull from Ukraine more than a decade ago, was ready to engage in combat.

The Liaoning recently completed its first live-fire exercise in the Bohai Sea off eastern China and, on Friday, the military announced it had carried out air combat exercises in the Yellow Sea.

Yesterday morning, the Liaoning was operating in the East China Sea, according to state broadcaster chinesenaby. An official statement said that several carrier-based fighter jets and helicopters had completed a tactical confrontation and mid-air refuelling exercise.

The Liaoning will almost certainly be used to reinforce China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is home to key shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of mineral resources.

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Last December, the Chinese defence ministry confirmed it was building a second aircraft carrier, but no further details have been forthcoming, as the programme is a state secret.

According to a Pentagon report released last year, Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years.