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Free rein for China’s navy as virus halts US ships


China’s navy has been flexing its muscles by conducting drills and sending its two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait, into the South China Sea and the Pacific as the US and Taiwanese navies struggle with coronavirus outbreaks aboard their ships.

The Liaoning and Shandong, China’s two aircraft carriers, were both on active deployment during most of March and April, staging drills and making voyages that covered staggering distances across the nation’s claimed territorial waters and the high seas.

The Liaoning, the first carrier in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), along with several escort ships in its convoy, did not try to elude the glare of the Taiwanese military and media when it sailed back-and-forth along the Taiwan Strait and off the island’s Pacific coast last month.

The Liaoning flotilla comprised at least two guided-missile destroyers, two frigates and a supply ship and sailed through the Taiwan Strait twice, according to the defense ministries of Taiwan and Japan. It also passed through the Bashi Channel, a waterway to the south of Taiwan.

An image released by the Taiwanese military of China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning sailing close to Taiwan’s territorial waters earlier this month.

The Soviet-built PLAN carrier has often been mocked as a “second-hand warship” with an outdated ski-jump ramp at the end of its bow after its purchase by the Chinese military in the early 2000s. But the 67,500-ton ship seems to have undergone a major upgrade to her combat and navigation systems as part of a big refit.

The Liaoning was deployed in the South China Sea and further afield in the western Pacific after sailing through Taiwan’s littoral waters. The 2,500-plus seamen and pilots aboard reportedly mounted intensive drills during which they were split into two groups and pitted against each other in mock surface and air combat featuring fighter takeoffs and landings at night. They also coordinated patrols and reconnaissance missions.

The ship is now back at its home port of Qingdao in northern China.

The Shandong, a homemade lookalike of her sister ship which was commissioned in December, also cruised in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea last month.


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