TAIPEI • A group of Chinese warships led by the country's sole aircraft carrier entered the top half of the South China Sea yesterday after passing south of Taiwan, the island's Defence Ministry said of what Beijing has termed a routine exercise.
The move comes amid renewed tension over Taiwan, which China claims as its own, following United States President-elect Donald Trump's telephone call with the island's President Tsai Ing-wen that upset Beijing.
The Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier, whose home port is in Qingdao, has taken part in previous exercises, including some in the South China Sea, but last Saturday was the first time it was involved in an exercise in the Western Pacific.
Senior Taiwan opposition Kuomintang lawmaker Johnny Chiang said the Liaoning exercise was China's signal to the US that it has broken through the "first island chain", an area that includes Japan's Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.
The carrier's whereabouts were closely monitored by Taiwan and Japan.
Taiwan's Defence Ministry yesterday said the carrier, accompanied by five vessels, passed south-east of the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands, heading south-west.
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.
Japan's top government spokesman yesterday said the voyage showed China's expanding military capability.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman 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 news briefing.
Influential state-run newspaper Global Times said the exercise showed how the carrier was improving its combat capabilities and that it should now sail even farther afield.
"It should not only pass the first island chain but also sail past the second island chain and go to the waters where Chinese cruise fleets have never been," the newspaper noted in its editorial.
The so-called first and second island chains are seen by some Chinese naval strategists as blockades designed by the US to contain China.
"The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later.
"When China's aircraft carrier fleet appears in offshore areas of the US one day, it will trigger intense thinking about maritime rules," the editorial added.
China has been angered recently by US naval patrols near islands that Beijing claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, a Chinese navy ship seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea.
Beijing later returned it.
China Daily reported yesterday that China has tested the latest version of its fifth-generation stealth fighter, the FC-31 Gyrfalcon.
Formerly known as the J-31, the twin engine, radar-evading plane took to the air for the first time last Friday.