Chinese aircraft carrier heads through Taiwan Strait on way to trials in South China Sea

Sarah Zheng

China’s first domestically made aircraft carrier headed to the South China Sea for trials on Monday, after passing through the strategically sensitive Taiwan Strait, according to the mainland’s navy.

The warship, known as the Type 001A, passed through the waterway towards to conduct “scientific trials and routine training” in a “normal arrangement”, navy spokesman Cheng Dewei said on Monday.

“This is not aimed towards any specific target, and has no relation to the current situation,” Cheng said.

The vessel sailed through the strait on Sunday as campaigning began in earnest for Taiwan’s January election.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said the carrier, accompanied by escort ships, passed south through the strait from the East China Sea, trailed by US and Japanese ships.

The ministry said the passage was fully monitored to “ensure national security and safeguard regional peace and stability”.

Taiwan is preparing to vote in presidential and legislative elections in which cross-strait relations have become a major issue for the major parties, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT).

With more than five months of escalating anti-government protests in Hong Kong, both parties have rejected Beijing’s proposal to use the “one country, two systems” political framework in place in the special administrative region for Taiwan.

Beijing claims self-governed and democratic Taiwan as its own territory, and has vowed to bring the island back under its fold “by force if necessary”.

Relations across the strait have deteriorated under the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, and Beijing has increased pressure against the island, including in the international arena.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu linked the passage of the aircraft carrier to Tsai’s official announcement on Sunday that former premier William Lai Ching-te – who has openly advocated for Taiwan’s independence – would be her running mate on the DPP ticket.

Wu said the move reflected Beijing’s intentions to intervene in Taiwan’s elections.

“Voters won’t be intimidated! They’ll say NO to #China at the ballot box,” he said in a tweet.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force have regularly conducted patrols around Taiwan in recent years, sailing its aircraft carrier group led by the Liaoning through the strait in June. The United States and its allies have also strengthened their presence in the region, with the US Navy conducting more freedom of navigation transits through the strait this year than in 2018.

But Taiwanese military specialist Chang Ching said weather – not politics – was behind the timing of the passage.

Chang said the manoeuvre was the result of strong winds north of the island, and that Beijing sent political signals on Taiwan through official channels, including through its Taiwan Affairs Office under the State Council.

“The political calendar is totally irrelevant from the military calendar,” he said. “If Beijing wanted to send this signal, they would not just use a military manoeuvre, they would express this explicitly, not implicitly.”

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