The Liaoning is seen as having a big role in the Chinese military’s plan to unify Taiwan by force. Photo: AFP

At the height of the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1995-96, China was forced to retreat in the face of America’s dual-aircraft carrier deployments in support of its Taiwanese ally.

It was the closest that the two powers came to blows on the high seas, but a massively overpowered China had no requisite ability to match the US’ naval might.

Fast forward to the present, China is showing just how far it has come since that strategic humiliation by conducting its own dual-aircraft carrier naval exercises in adjacent waters.

In recent days, China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and first indigenously-built carrier, the Shandong, have conducted near-simultaneous drills in the northeastern waters of the Bohai and Yellow Seas.

This marks the first time that both warships have conducted drills at the same time, even though one of the carriers, the Shandong, is not yet fully combat-ready.

Analysts believe that the two Chinese carriers could soon meet for joint exercises since the two areas are only about 300 kilometers apart apart.  

A Chinese naval expert recently told the state-run Global Times newspaper that “China’s two carriers will become key forces at a time when China has been facing military pressure from countries like the US in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, and potentially from India on China’s key maritime transport lanes.”

China’s newly-launched Shandong aircraft carrier is not yet combat-ready. Image: Facebook

The unprecedented carrier drills, the expert said, also demonstrate China’s ability to “squeeze the island of Taiwan from different angles” and “deny possible US intervention” in the event of an actual conflict over the self-governing island Beijing considers a renegade province.

Over the weekend, the refurbished Liaoning left its naval base in Qingdao en route to the Yellow Sea, satellite images showed.

Meanwhile, the Shandong, which was launched amid much fanfare last December in southern Hainan by President Xi Jinping, had earlier left its naval base in Dalian for training exercises in the Bohai Sea.

Chinese authorities in Dalian recently imposed a week-long no-entry zone for civilian vessels across the Bohai Sea and northern portions of the Yellow Sea.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) latest maneuvers come shortly after carrying out near-simultaneous naval exercises in four maritime regions, including the East China Sea and South China Sea.

They also come on the back of China’s provocative launching of “carrier killer” missiles, namely the DF-26B dual-capable missile from Qinghai in the north and a DF-21D  from Zhejiang in the east, into the South China Sea.

The headline-grabbing maneuver came ostensibly in response to the alleged entry of a US U-2 spy plane into a no-fly zone during the PLA’s live-fire naval drills in the Bohai Sea.

In July, the US conducted its own dual-carrier exercises in the South China Sea, part of an intensified campaign to check Chinese maritime assertiveness amid the global pandemic.

A new US policy pronouncement recently deemed China’s wide-reaching claims to the sea as “illegal” under international law.  

The USS Nimitz and USS Roosevelt in a dual-carrier operation in a file photo. Image: Handout/US Navy

Chinese experts have characterized the drills as strategically legitimate, rather than plain provocations, aimed to enhance Beijing’s ability to “play a role in protecting crucial maritime transport lanes like the Strait of Malacca,” according to the expert quoted in the Global Times.

But China is also eager to signal its strengthening naval capabilities, especially in adjacent waters, since the humiliating years in the 1990s where it was at the mercy of a far superior American force.

As Chinese military modernization expert Harry Kazianis told this author, “China has studied with great interest the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Balkans over the last two decades as well as Beijing’s own clashes with Washington (namely the 1995–1996 Taiwan crisis and 2001 Hainan Island controversy).”

In response, Kazianis explains, China has not only heavily invested in asymmetric capabilities “to raise the cost of [US] entry into a conflict in places like the South China or East China Seas as well as near and around Taiwan,” but it has also doubled down on capabilities  “to deter America just as much as win if a kinetic conflict ever occurred.”

China’s ultimate naval goal is to create what experts refer to as a “no-go zone” in its adjacent waters, strategic control that would allow it to squeeze US allies such as Taiwan as well as those across the South China Sea with gradually rising strategic impunity.

Despite China’s recent massive strides, it still trails the US in terms of overall military and especially naval capabilities.

The US Navy has been operating as many as 11 large nuclear-powered fleet carriers, each carrying up to 80 fighter jets, with a total combined deck space that until recently was twice that of all other countries’ combined.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy holds live fire drills in the South China Sea. Image: Agencies

China’s Soviet-era-designed aircraft carriers are less sophisticated compared to their modern American nuclear-powered Nimitz-class counterparts.

The Liaoning is originally an Ukrainian Kuznetsov-class carrier capable of carrying up to 24 J-15 fighter jets, while the Shandong can hold a dozen more in addition to other aircrafts and helicopters.

While the strategic balance hasn’t completely tilted, it’s clearly shifting, security experts say.

“Given the fact that China now has two carrier strike groups, it needs to improve their defense and support capacity,”  said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert quoted recently in regional media.

“The PLA is seeking to step up combat readiness, and aircraft carriers would be part of any war [over] Taiwan, so training exercises are needed – whether it’s single carrier operations or dual-carrier operations,” he added.

Pro-Beijing commentators are even more confidant in China’s rising naval prowess.

“Even if these simultaneous exercises do not see the two carriers interact with each other this time, it will be another significant step toward a true dual-carrier era for the PLA Navy,” a Chinese expert told the Global Times.

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