HANOI/HONG KONG • Dozens of Chinese naval vessels are exercising this week with an aircraft carrier in a large show of force off Hainan island in the South China Sea, satellite images show.
The images from Planet Labs confirm that a Chinese carrier group is in the vital trade waterway as part of what the Chinese navy earlier described as combat drills under routine annual exercises.
The Liaoning carrier group last week traversed the Taiwan Strait, said Taiwan's Defence Ministry.
The photos, taken on Monday, show what appear to be at least 40 ships and submarines flanking the carrier Liaoning in what some analysts described as an unusually large display of the Chinese military's growing naval might.
Sailing in a line formation more suited to visual propaganda than hard military manoeuvres, the flotilla was headed by what appeared to be submarines, with aircraft above.
Mr Jeffrey Lewis, a security expert at the California-based based Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies, said the images were the first confirmation that the carrier was joining the drills.
"It's an incredible picture," he said. "That's the big news to me. Confirmation that, yes, the carrier participated in the exercise."
While the Liaoning has entered the South China Sea before as part of drills in uncontested training grounds south of Hainan, its annual exercises are being closely watched by regional and global powers eyeing Beijing's growing military might. It is unclear where the flotilla was headed, or how long operations will last.
Mr Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, described the deployment as unusual for its size and scope.
"Judging by the images, it does seem they are keen to show that elements of the South Sea Fleet are able to routinely join up with the carrier strike group from Dalian in the north," he said. "It does seem they want to show inter-fleet interoperability - something the (Chinese) navy has been quietly working on for some time."
Chinese naval and coast guard forces have expanded rapidly in recent years and now patrol vast swathes of the South China Sea, but little is known about their combat readiness and co-ordination.
Mr Koh said as well as the destroyers, frigates and submarines that would ordinarily support a carrier, the flotilla appeared to include a large oiler for re-supply as well as smaller corvettes.
China's claims in the South China Sea are disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, while Taiwan also has claims.
The exercises come amid fresh signs of tension in the resource-rich waterway, with Vietnam recently halting oil exploration off its coast by Spanish firm Repsol under pressure from Beijing.
China objected to a so-called freedom of navigation patrol by a US warship last week close to one of its artificial islands in the Spratlys archipelago further south.