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Politics

China flexes bulked-up military muscles in Pacific

Beijing seen aiming to make Trump sit up and take notice

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J-15 fighter jets on the Liaoning aircraft carrier.   © Kyodo

BEIJING -- China appears eager to showcase its first aircraft carrier's military exercises in the Pacific, likely to send U.S. President-elect Donald Trump the message that Beijing has the potentially game-changing hardware in hand.

The Liaoning entered the waters of the western Pacific on Sunday, crossing the so-called First Island Line consisting of a chain of islands connecting Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces have identified and are monitoring six vessels in all: the Liaoning, three missile destroyers and two frigates. The formation, which passed through the Miyako Strait between Okinawa's main and Miyako islands, had just conducted its first drill in mid-December in the Bohai Sea.

The latest exercise is unusual in that it is being conducted by the naval chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, according to Chinese media.

The formation has been practicing takeoffs and landings by the J-15 fighter jet as it moves through the Bohai Sea to the Yellow Sea to the East China Sea.

The Global Times, under the People's Daily mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, cited online Saturday a military expert's comment that the steps taken with the aircraft carrier imply a response to provocations by a specific country.

That country is the U.S., where Trump angered Beijing by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen only weeks after winning his election. Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, while Tsai is pro-independence.

The Global Times posted online Sunday an article about preventing an attack from above the sea.

The Liaoning actually began operation in 2012 after Beijing bought a vessel from Ukraine and modified it. The main purpose was training and research so that China could eventually build its own aircraft carriers.

But now, the fact that Beijing is putting it to use in training and publicizing this in national media highlights the government's serious efforts to tell the world of its rising combat capabilities.

China places heavy importance on its Anti-Access/Area Denial, or A2/AD, tactic designed to keep the U.S. military from approaching in an emergency involving Taiwan, for instance. The First Island Line is thus a strategic line of defense for China.

Beijing has sought since the 1980s to take control of waters inside the First Island Line by 2010 and the Second Island Line -- connecting the Izu islands and Guam -- by 2020. It does not appear to have abandoned these aspirations, despite the delay.

Bombers have repeatedly conducted training past the First Island Line.

At least three aircraft carriers are said to be necessary for the vessels to be in regular operation.

The Liaoning faces many operational challenges. A fighter pilot died after a failed landing in April, for example.

At this point, the passage of the First Island Line by the naval formation is widely seen as no more than symbolic. But a permanent stay beyond the line could impact the defense strategy of a Japan that strongly emphasizes protecting its southwestern chain of islets off Kyushu, one of its main islands.

A second aircraft carrier under construction in Dalian, Liaoning Province, is expected to set sail soon. Military information websites have put out rumors of a third aircraft carrier being built since March 2015, citing a National Defense University professor. That vessel is said to have a catapult for efficiently launching aircraft, in contrast to the first carrier's "ski jump" ramp.

This would mean that the third carrier will have a greater capacity than the first two -- highlighting how China has acquired technology for volume production of aircraft carriers with significantly greater combat capabilities.

Separately, China will soon receive four Su-35 fighter jets from Russia, according to an order signed late last year. As the U.S. transitions into a new presidency, Beijing may be keeping its forces busy for a while.

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