China has the right to sail in international waters, US says amid carrier drill

Chinese J-15 fighter jets on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in the Bohai Sea.
Chinese J-15 fighter jets on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in the Bohai Sea. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States says China has the right to sail in international waters after a Chinese aircraft carrier cruised past Taiwan and into the contested South China Sea, reported the Associated Press.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner was quoted as saying on Tuesday the US recognises lawful uses of the sea, and the same rights apply to the US, China and other nations.

“As we often make the case with our own naval vessels sailing … in those same waters, it’s freedom of navigation,” said Mr Toner according to AP.

The comments came as Taiwan said China's sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has arrived at a naval base on the southern Chinese province of Hainan, after drills that took it around the island China claims as its own.

China has given few details of what the Soviet-built Liaoning is up to, save that it is on a routine exercise.

Taiwan has said the aircraft carrier skirted waters outside its air defence identification zone to its east and south and then headed across the top of the South China Sea to Hainan, home to a large Chinese naval base.

"The Liaoning aircraft carrier has reached the Hainan military base. We will continue to monitor its developments," a senior Taiwanese military official told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, on Wednesday (Dec 28).

China has been testing the aircraft carrier's systems and coordination with other military equipment, the officer said, and its arrival in Hainan did not mean its mission was over.

Chinese state media says the carrier’s likely home base was the northeastern port city of Qingdao.

Speaking at a regular news briefing, An Fengshan, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said China would exert all its efforts to achieve “peaceful reunification”.

“At the same time, our position on maintaining the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unswerving, and we will never permit Taiwan independence separatist forces to split Taiwan from China in any way or in any name,” he said.  

The drill, which included accompanying warships, comes amid renewed tension over Taiwan, which China claims as its own, following US President-elect Donald Trump's telephone call with the island's president that upset Beijing.

China's air force conducted long-range drills this month above the East and South China Seas that rattled Japan and Taiwan. China said those exercises were also routine.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7.2 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

The Liaoning has taken part in previous exercises, including in the South China Sea, but China is years away from perfecting carrier operations similar to those the United States has practised for decades.

Last December, the defence ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier but its launch date is unclear. The aircraft carrier programme is a state secret.