PLA warships led by China’s sole aircraft carrier are testing weapons and equipment in exercises this week in the South China Sea, the foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
Exercises by PLA ships, in particular the aircraft carrier Liaoning, since last month have unnerved China’s neighbours, especially at a time of heightened strain with self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, and given long-running territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China says the Soviet-built Liaoning and other ships conduct routine exercises that comply with international law.
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“The Liaoning aircraft carrier group in the South China Sea is carrying out scientific research and training, in accordance with plans,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“The purpose is to test the performance of weapons and equipment,” he said.
The PLA Navy said on its official microblog this week that the aircraft carrier conducted drills in the South China Sea with its fighters and helicopters.
US warships have also been conducting what they call freedom of navigation patrols through the South China Sea over the past year as concern grows about Chinese construction of air strips and docks on disputed reefs and islands.
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PLA warships sailed through waters south of Japan and then rounded east and south of Taiwan late last month on their way to the southern mainland province of Hainan.
Taiwan’s defence minister warned at the time that “the threat of our enemies is growing day by day”.
Taiwanese media have reported that the Liaoning could sail north up the median line of the Taiwan Strait on its way to its home port of Qingdao.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said the talk about the timing and northward route of the Liaoning was speculation, and it would make preparations based on the situation and “maintain its grasp of the movements” of the ship.
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Business relations between Taiwan and the mainland have grown significantly over the past decade but tension has increased since the island elected a president from an independence-leaning party last year.
Beijing distrusts President Tsai Ing-wen and has stepped up pressure on her following a protocol-breaking phone discussion between her and US president-elect Donald Trump last month.
Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for the island’s formal independence, a red line for the mainland. Tsai says she wants to maintain peace across the strait.