There has been speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken a break from meetings at the Boao Forum to inspect navy vessels off Sanya, a resort city on the southern shore of Hainan Island.
China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and many other warships have massed in the waters off Sanya.
Ming Pao, a daily paper in Hong Kong, reported on Thursday that Xi could even board the Liaoning for a mini parade at sea, in response to the many US vessels that are sailing through the South China Sea. The paper cited a Beijing observer as saying the scale of the three-day naval drill off the island was “unseen in many years”.
The Liaoning has been cruising in the South China Sea for weeks after taking a high-profile detour along the Taiwan Strait, and recent satellite images of the waters surrounding Sanya show a big ensemble of vessels such as Type 052 destroyers, plus many submarines as part of a convoy.
Beijing-based military commentator Wu Ge said the warships were likely to be “rehearsing for a kind of parade”, rather than in a combat format, judging by the satellite images available.
“There have been rumors that Xi would want to board the Liaoning and see with his own eyes the weaponry, as well as the training and mobilization of the 2,500-plus sailors and airmen on the flagship of the Chinese navy,” he said.
Wu said the drill parade was likely staged for a domestic audience, to whip patriotism, rather than strategy or combat training.
Xi has an obvious penchant for military fanfare, as seen in the many parades that have taken place since he took the helm of the PLA in 2012.
Xi’s possible visit may buoy the morale of the Chinese carrier strike group, despite the fact it is dwarfed by the nuclear-powered USS Theodore Roosevelt that is also in the South China Sea, following the path taken by another US carrier, the Carl Vinson, in an earlier freedom-of-navigation, maritime security deployment.