China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet. Photo: Reuters

China’s navy has been flexing its muscles by conducting drills and sending its two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait, into the South China Sea and the Pacific as the US and Taiwanese navies struggle with coronavirus outbreaks aboard their ships.

The Liaoning and Shandong, China’s two aircraft carriers, were both on active deployment during most of March and April, staging drills and making voyages that covered staggering distances across the nation’s claimed territorial waters and the high seas.

The Liaoning, the first carrier in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), along with several escort ships in its convoy, did not try to elude the glare of the Taiwanese military and media when it sailed back-and-forth along the Taiwan Strait and off the island’s Pacific coast last month.

The Liaoning flotilla comprised at least two guided-missile destroyers, two frigates and a supply ship and sailed through the Taiwan Strait twice, according to the defense ministries of Taiwan and Japan. It also passed through the Bashi Channel, a waterway to the south of Taiwan.

An image released by the Taiwanese military of China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning sailing close to Taiwan’s territorial waters earlier this month.

The Soviet-built PLAN carrier has often been mocked as a “second-hand warship” with an outdated ski-jump ramp at the end of its bow after its purchase by the Chinese military in the early 2000s. But the 67,500-ton ship seems to have undergone a major upgrade to her combat and navigation systems as part of a big refit.

The Liaoning was deployed in the South China Sea and further afield in the western Pacific after sailing through Taiwan’s littoral waters. The 2,500-plus seamen and pilots aboard reportedly mounted intensive drills during which they were split into two groups and pitted against each other in mock surface and air combat featuring fighter takeoffs and landings at night. They also coordinated patrols and reconnaissance missions.

The ship is now back at its home port of Qingdao in northern China.

The Shandong, a homemade lookalike of her sister ship which was commissioned in December, also cruised in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea last month.

Analysts say that by fielding two carriers roughly at the same time in both the north and south Beijing aimed to convey the message that its navy remains combat-ready and unscathed by Covid-19 that has torn through the US’ nuclear flattop USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has been hit by a cluster of infections.

When the Liaoning sailed past Taiwan, the highly contagious pathogen was also spreading among those onboard the Panshih, Taiwan’s largest warship.

As the only major navy in Asia that remains in operation during the pandemic, the PLAN is de facto filling a power vacuum in the South China Sea and western Pacific. The US navy is arguably losing its primacy as its bases across the region fight the pandemic with many seamen moved ashore.

A file photo shows China’s two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, at a shipyard in Dalian in northern China. Photo: China News Service

The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid under the People’s Daily umbrella, quoted Chinese military observers as saying that the PLAN could be the only Asian navy still capable of dispatching large warships.

The American carriers that used to be deployed in the Indo-Pacific region – namely the John C Stennis, Carl Vinson and Ronald Reagan – have all been hit by the virus and are now grounded at home ports.

The paper took a swipe at both the US and French navies, both of which have reported mounting cases of the virus on their carriers and other warships. In the case of the French military, more than 1,000 servicemen on its Charles de Gaulle carrier have reportedly been infected with Covid-19.

The Liaoning‘s month-long voyage could be the lengthiest training session by the PLAN since the Chinese military resumed drills and training in early March, as the nation’s own Covid-19 outbreak began to taper off.

The PLA’s patrols and navigations all came to a screeching halt when logistics and supplies were hobbled by the semi-lockdown nationwide from the end of January, when the virus began to ravage Wuhan and the rest of the nation.

A J-15 fighter jet of the PLA Navy prepares to land on China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning during a naval exercise in the western Pacific. Photo: AFP
A file photo shows J-15 fighters and PLA seamen on the flight deck of the Liaoning as the carrier sails into Hong Kong waters in July 2017. Photo: Xinhua

Then, the PLA postponed all routine crew changes and rotations on its carriers and other key vessels to stop the virus from creeping onboard. Stringent health screening of the crew and deep disinfection of the Liaoning was implemented beginning in February.

A post circulating on China’s Weibo platform, believed to be from the wife of a marine serving on the Liaoning, said she had not seen her husband for more than four months. He was not allowed to return home for the Chinese New Year in late January, as commanders banned everyone from disembarking from the ship as a precaution against the pandemic.

She said her husband phoned and told her everyone must wear a mask and members of different brigades and squadrons were not allowed to mingle to reduce the risk of cross-infection.

Overall there have been no reports of any large clusters of infections within the two-million-plus PLA.

Chinese state media claimed there was “zero infection” among the thousands of soldiers and medical professionals dispatched by the military to operate two massive field hospitals erected within two weeks in Wuhan to treat patients with severe symptoms.

But not all observers believe that the Liaoning and the PLA have been completely untouched by the virus.

Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and Hawaii Pacific University instructor, said in a recent interview with CNN that the PLA was able to mask any effects because its ships mostly operated close to Chinese shores, meaning their time at sea was limited.

“Short deployment will preclude the disease affecting operations and pulling [warships] into a military base all but precludes any evidence of an outbreak becoming public knowledge,” Schuster said.

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