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Japan, Taiwan militaries on alert as China flotilla heads to Pacific

The Japanese and Taiwanese militaries have been put on alert after a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy flotilla led by the Liaoning aircraft carrier was spotted sailing from the East China Sea towards the Pacific Ocean.

Japan Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff Office released a statement on Monday saying that the Liaoning, accompanied by seven destroyers and supply vessels, had left the East China Sea and passed through waters between Japan’s Okinawa and Miyako islands before entering the West Pacific.

The Japanese defense ministry dispatched the Izumo light aircraft carrier, as well as P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and P-3C anti-submarine aircraft to monitor the activities of the Chinese ships, the statement said.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Taiwanese military spokesman Sun Li-fang told reporters that Taiwan’s military closely monitors Chinese military maneuvers in waters and airspace surrounding Taiwan, and would take “appropriate response measures.”

According to the Japanese statement, among seven warships in the Liaoning carrier group were the Type 055 large guided missile destroyer Nanchang, the Type 052D guided missile destroyer Chengdu, and the Type 901 comprehensive supply ship Hulunhu.

With a total of eight vessels, this is the largest Liaoning carrier group in recent voyages, said the state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times.

The newspaper said it is likely that the Liaoning and other ships are to take part in a “routine PLA Navy far-sea exercise.”

It quoted an anonymous military analyst as predicting that the Chinese ships “could go further east into the Pacific Ocean, or they could transit through the Bashi channel south of the island of Taiwan and conduct exercises in the South China Sea.”

Combat training

In one of the photos released by the Japanese military, the Liaoning – China’s first aircraft carrier – was seen carrying a number of J-15 fighter jets as well as Z-8 and Z-9 helicopters.

This is the first time this year the Liaoning carrier group passed the so-called First Island Chain that includes Taiwan and Japan to enter the Pacific Ocean.

Last December, the aircraft carrier and five other vessels conducted drills in the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the West Pacific for 21 days in order to boost its combat capability.

Chinese naval movements in the close proximity of Taiwan have always been closely watched by the Taiwanese military, the island’s ministry of defense said.

The ministry’s spokesman Sun Li-fang said Taiwan “has response plans based on possible actions by China.”

The Liaoning regularly patrols the Taiwan Strait and may be deployed in the event of armed conflict with the self-governing island. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that shall be united with the mainland.

“It’s no secret that the Taiwanese Navy is totally overmatched by the PLA Navy,” said Gordon Arthur, a military analyst and Asia-Pacific editor of Shepherd, a defense news portal.

“Last year, for example, China commissioned some combined 170,000 tonnage of new warships – this is more than the combined Taiwan’s fleet, and reflects Chinese additions in just one year.”

“Taiwan cannot hope to compete with this, so it has been concentrating on vessels that will give it some asymmetric advantages,” Arthur said, adding that examples include the homemade Tuo Chiang-class corvette and the Indigenous Defense Submarine.

Yet it’s still some years till the island’s Navy is fully capable to counter any blockade or invasion attempt by China, experts said.