|© STR/AFP/Getty Images This picture taken on an undisclosed date in December 2016 shows a Chinese J-15 fighter jet preparing to take off from the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in the Bohai Sea|
TAIPEI, Dec 26 (Reuters) - A group of Chinese warships led by the country's sole aircraft carrier entered the top half of the South China Sea on Monday after passing south of Taiwan, the self-ruled island's Defence Ministry said of what China has termed a routine exercise.
The move comes amid renewed tension over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, ineligible for state-to-state relations, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's telephone call with the island's president that upset Beijing.
The Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier has taken part in previous exercises, including some in the South China Sea, but China is years away from perfecting carrier operations similar to those the United States has practised for decades.
Taiwan's Defence Ministry said the carrier, accompanied by five vessels, passed southeast of the Pratas Islands, which are controlled by Taiwan, heading southwest.
The carrier group earlier passed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan's southernmost point via the Bashi Channel, between Taiwan and the Philippines.
"Staying vigilant and flexible has always been the normal method of maintaining airspace security," said ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi, declining to say whether Taiwan fighter jets were scrambled or if submarines had been deployed.
Chen said the ministry was continuing to "monitor and grasp the situation".
Senior Taiwan opposition Nationalist lawmaker Johnny Chiang said the Liaoning exercise was China's signal to the United States that it has broken through the "first island chain", an area that includes Japan's Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said people should not read too much into what the carrier was up to, as its movements were within the law.
"Our Liaoning should enjoy in accordance with the law freedom of navigation and overflight as set by international law, and we hope all sides can respect this right of China's," she told a daily news briefing.
Influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said the exercise showed how the carrier was improving its combat capabilities and that it should now sail even further afield.
"The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later. When China's aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the U.S. one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules," the newspaper said in an editorial.
China has been angered recently by U.S. naval patrols near islands that China claims in the South China Sea. This month, a Chinese navy ship seized a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea. China later returned it.
Japan said late on Sunday it had spotted six Chinese naval vessels including the Liaoning travelling through the passage between Miyako and Okinawa and into the Pacific.
Japan's top government spokesman said on Monday the voyage showed China's expanding military capability and Japan was closely monitoring it.
China's air force conducted long-range drills this month above the East and South China Seas that rattled Japan and Taiwan. China said those exercises were also routine.
Last December, the defence ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier but its launch date is unclear. The aircraft carrier programme is a state secret.
Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years, the Pentagon said in a report last year.
China claims most of the South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims. (Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takanaka in Tokyo and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)
China's 1st aircraft carrier sails into South China Sea
|AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Tang, File|
In a new show of force, China's first aircraft carrier and five other warships passed by Taiwan and sailed into the contested South China Sea on Monday, Taiwan's Defense Ministry reported Monday.
China's Defense Ministry said Saturday that the Liaoning carrier had set off for a routine open-sea exercise in the Western Pacific as part of its annual training. But its entering into the politically sensitive South China Sea follows rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei over the status of the self-ruled island.
The ships, led by the Liaoning, sailed past the Pratas Islands, also known as the Dongsha Islands, a Taiwan-controlled atoll in the northern part of the South China Sea, according to Taiwan.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to endorse Beijing's concept that Taiwan is a part of China. Beijing claims the self-governing island as its own territory and says failing to endorse the one-China principle would destabilize relations.
The U.S. entered the spat earlier this month when President-elect Donald Trump spoke over the phone with Taiwan's leader, a breach of long-standing tradition. The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with the self-governing island in 1979 but has maintained close unofficial relations and a commitment to support its defense.
"Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call," Trump tweeted.
The Taiwanese ministry said the Liaoning and warships had on Sunday sailed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan in the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines.
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.
China has characterized its moves as defensive in nature and accused U.S. warships of making provocative passes through the region.
The Liaoning, commissioned by the Chinese navy in 2012, first sailed to the South China Sea in 2013, when it docked at a navy base near the Chinese holiday resort of Sanya. The vessel at the time was not outfitted with a full aircraft complement.
China's aircraft carrier and five other warships sail into South China Sea in show of force amidst rising tensions with Taiwan
China's only aircraft carrier and five other warships sailed past Taiwan and into the contested South China Sea on Monday, Taiwan's Defense Ministry said.
The Liaoning and five escorts sailed 20 nautical miles outside Taiwan's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines before moving into the highly contested South China Sea, the defense ministry said.
The move was seen as a show of strength amidst rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei over the status of the self-ruled island, but China's Defense Ministry said it was simply a routine open-sea exercise.
China views self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting unification - by force if necessary - even though the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.
Beijing says failing to endorse the one-China principle would destabilize relations.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, however, has refused to endorse Beijing's concept that Taiwan is a part of China.
Tsai spoke to US President-elect Donald Trump earlier this month in a phone call that upended nearly 40 years of U.S. foreign policy and prompted a formal complaint from the Chinese government.
On Monday, the Taiwanese ministry said Liaoning and the accompanying warships sailed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan's southernmost point through the Bashi Channel.
The ships then sailed southwest into the South China Sea, passing the Dongsha Islands, according to the ministry, which issued a statement saying the Taiwanese military was 'on guard' and 'fully monitoring the Liaoning'.
Taiwanese media said an unspecified number of F-16 fighter jets and warships were deployed in Taiwan's ADIZ to closely watch the Chinese warships. The ministry declined to comment.
The navy drills, the latest in a series of recent exercises staged by China, are seen as a show of strength by Beijing.
But Hua Chunying, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the Liaoning was operating within international regulations.
'Our Liaoning should enjoy in accordance with the law freedom of navigation and overflight as set by international law, and we hope all sides can respect this right of China's,' she told a daily news briefing.
Influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said the exercise showed the carrier was improving its combat capabilities and that it should now sail even further.