Japanese warship, jets shadow Chinese Navy strike group on western Pacific combat drills

Liu Zhen, South China Morning Post

Posted at May 06 2022 05:36 AM | Updated as of May 06 2022 06:23 AM

Japanese air force scrambled fighter jets 'in response': Tokyo

A Chinese carrier-based J-15 fighter takes off from the Liaoning on Tuesday. Courtesy of Japan Ministry of Defence
A Chinese carrier-based J-15 fighter takes off from the Liaoning on Tuesday. Courtesy of Japan Ministry of Defence

The Chinese navy aircraft carrier Liaoning has been carrying out fighter jet combat drills in the western Pacific, with Japanese light carrier Izumo on the watch nearby.

The refurbished Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier was photographed sending off and retrieving its ship-borne fighter J-15s and early warning helicopter Z-18s on Tuesday, a Japanese defence ministry statement said.

This came as the eight-strong Liaoning carrier strike group carried out battle exercises south of Okinawa and east of Taiwan, in waters closely monitored by Japan.

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The Japanese air force scrambled fighter jets in response to the activities of the Chinese navy, the ministry said, including a Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and Lockheed P-3 Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft.

The Izumo, one of the Japanese navy's two active helicopter carriers, was also dispatched to follow and monitor the Liaoning exercises.

The Liaoning on Monday led five destroyers, including guided-missile destroyer Nanchang, one frigate and one supply ship through the Miyako Strait between Japan's Okinawa Islands to enter the western Pacific. The Nanchang is the PLA Navy's most powerful Type 055 destroyer and has escorted every Liaoning strike group since last year.

The Chinese navy said the larger than usual strike group was on a "routine mission" for realistic combat training not targeted at any party.

The Izumo also monitored the Liaoning's last exercise in December after Chinese warships transited international waters in the Miyako Strait.

This comes with the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group also currently deployed in the nearby Philippine Sea, and just weeks after large-scale PLA naval and air force exercises in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait, "in response to the recent frequent false signals released by the US on the Taiwan issue".

Beijing's relations with US and its ally Japan have hit a rough patch over their vocal support for self-ruled Taiwan, especially after Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked fears of a similar cross-strait assault by the PLA.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be a renegade province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, and reacted with fury last month after a bipartisan group of American lawmakers visited Taipei in a fresh show of US support.

Japan's 27,000-tonne Izumo is much smaller than the 60,000-tonne Liaoning, but it is being converted from a multi-role destroyer or helicopter carrier to a light carrier, refitted to suit the Lockheed F-35B combat aircraft. First tests with the jets were carried out last year. Japan has ordered 40 of the American F-35Bs for the Izumo and its sister ship, the Kaga.

The two Japanese carriers have participated in many US-led naval exercises in the Indo-Pacific in recent years as the region becomes a focus of geopolitical rivalry amid the fast expansion of the Chinese navy.

The Liaoning became the PLA Navy's first aircraft carrier in 2012, followed in 2017 by the domestically built Shandong. A third is under construction and expected to be launched later this year.

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