Chinese aircraft carrier the Liaoning had a surprising run along the Taiwan Strait late on Thursday night, Taiwan’s defense officials said, noting that the warship skimmed off the center line of the strait while en route to Guangdong for R&R – rest and recreation – for its crew before further drills in the South China Sea.
The carrier sailed from its home port of Qingdao in northern China’s Shandong province at noon on Thursday, following a large exercise right after the New Year that involved other combat ships, including at least two 052C-class guided-missile destroyers.
Taiwan rushed to scramble reconnaissance planes to monitor the Liaoning at dusk yesterday, bracing for any potential emergency that could arise from the approaching Chinese carrier.
It was feared that the 61,000-ton vessel, and its squadron of J-15 shipborne fighters, would cut across the Miyako Strait northeast of Taiwan and head south by the island’s east coast, before looping round the island’s southern sea border to flaunt the prowess of the Chinese military to contain and recapture the breakaway province – as it did a little over a year ago.
But that didn’t happen. Taiwan heaved a sigh of relief as the Liaoning passed through the Taiwan Strait, a waterway that is 130 kilometers wide at its narrowest, following a route west of the center line between the mainland and the island.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said any ships that veer past the center line and enter Taiwan’s territorial waters will be monitored and intercepted if they fail to comply with warnings against the incursion.
Meanwhile, Chinese deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said in a conference on Friday that the Taiwan Strait belongs to both sides and that the Liaoning’s passage didn’t represent any change to Beijing’s policies.
The last time the Liaoning was seen in the Strait was last July when a strike group with a frigate and two destroyers cruised north, after attending celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China.
J-15 fighters reportedly had multiple takeoffs from the carrier while in the sensitive waters.
Taiwan lodged a complaint, which Beijing dismissed, that the strike group penetrated its sea defense zone.
The Liaoning’s maiden blue-water journey on Christmas Eve in 2016, after years’ of retrofitting by the Chinese military, culminated in a high-profile voyage around Taiwan that unnerved citizens on the island.