China sends aircraft carriers on unprecedented dual missions in Bohai, Yellow seas

·3 min read

The Chinese navy has launched unprecedented double aircraft carrier missions as it seeks to improve combat readiness, and amid worsening tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, left its base in the eastern city of Qingdao and sailed to the Yellow Sea over the weekend, Chinese state-run magazine Modern Ships reported on Saturday, citing satellite images.

Maritime authorities in Dalian, in the northeast, had on Friday announced a no-entry zone for civilian vessels in the Bohai Sea and the northern part of the Yellow Sea for seven days.

The Liaoning’s mission follows reports that China’s newest aircraft carrier, the Shandong, left the port in Dalian and headed out for training exercises in the Bohai Sea last week. Maritime authorities closed the area in the Bohai Sea – off the coast of Leting county in Hebei province – to civilian vessels for three weeks from September 1 because of “military missions”.

While the two aircraft carriers are on separate missions, there has been speculation that they could also be planning to meet for joint exercises since the two areas are only about 300km (186 miles) apart.

It is the first time the two warships have conducted drills at the same time since the Shandong – a Kuznetsov-class carrier that is not yet combat-ready – entered service in December.

Song Zhongping, a military commentator based in Hong Kong, said the People’s Liberation Army would be looking to boost dual-aircraft carrier operations.

“Given the fact that China now has two carrier strike groups, it needs to improve their defence and support capacity,” Song said. “The PLA is seeking to step up combat readiness, and aircraft carriers would be part of any war [to take control of] Taiwan, so training exercises are needed – whether it’s single-carrier operations or dual-carrier operations.”

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Relations have deteriorated between Taiwan and Beijing, which regards the self-ruled island as part of its territory, to be brought back into the mainland fold – by force if necessary.

Beijing is also sparring with Washington on many fronts, including in the Indo-Pacific region, where their strategic rivalry has intensified.

While China’s two aircraft carriers are not as sophisticated as America’s nuclear-powered Nimitz-class fleet, they are believed to have undergone upgrades to their original Soviet-era designs. The Kuznetsov-class Liaoning, which entered service in 2012, can carry up to 24 J-15 fighter jets, while the Shandong can take up to 36, as well as helicopters and other warplanes.

The latest Chinese military drills follow several high-profile exercises in the Yellow and Bohai seas in recent weeks amid an increase in sabre-rattling as tensions rise with the US.

Last month, the PLA fired two missiles – a DF-26B dual-capable missile from the northwestern province of Qinghai and a DF-21D from eastern Zhejiang – into an area between Hainan Island and the disputed Paracels in the South China Sea.

The missiles were launched a day after China said a US U-2 spy plane had entered a no-fly zone without permission during a Chinese live-fire naval drill in the Bohai Sea.

Meanwhile, the US Navy has also carried out a series of exercises in the region in recent months, including sending two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea for drills in July that overlapped with Chinese exercises and prompted a protest from Beijing.

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