BY JESSE JOHNSON, STAFF WRITER
China sent an aircraft carrier and five escort ships, including a destroyer likened to the U.S. Navy’s Aegis-class vessels, through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa over the weekend in a signal of its growing ability to counter American and Japanese military power further from its shores.
Japan’s Defense Ministry announced late Sunday that the Liaoning carrier and five other warships were spotted Saturday sailing south through international waters in the narrow passageway that separates Okinawa’s main island and Miyako Island. The vessels did not enter Japanese waters or its contiguous zone.
The sailing of the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, with what appeared to be a strike group was the first time it has been spotted since making a round-trip passage through the area in April last year.
Among the six vessels was the Chinese navy’s powerful Type 055 Renhai-class guided-missile destroyer, which was first deployed in January last year. The destroyer is equipped with vertical-launch missiles, and observers say it is capable of launching long-range cruise missiles as well as anti-ship weapons.
A statement released by the Defense Ministry’s Joint Staff said the six ships had first been detected about 470 kilometers southwest of Nagasaki Prefecture’s Danjo islets at around 8 a.m. Saturday before making their way through the Miyako Strait.
The Joint Staff said in a separate statement that a Chinese Y-9 military transport plane had also made a round-trip flight over the strait on Sunday, prompting Japan to scramble fighter jets in response.
China has sent the Liaoning through the strategic chokepoint just five times since the carrier was commissioned in 2012.
Experts said the move highlighted the Chinese military’s ability to punch through the so-called first island chain, a chain of Pacific islands stretching from the Kurils and the Ryukyus to Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia.
That stretch, coupled with the so-called second island chain that consists of Japan’s home islands and stretches to Guam and the islands of Micronesia, is seen by some in Beijing as a natural barrier that constrains the country and its military.
China has effectively regularized its military training in the area between the two chains, and experts say that Beijing is using moves like the weekend sailing to demonstrate that China’s seaward advances won’t be contained within the chains.
But more importantly, perhaps, is the move’s significance in terms of China’s evolving strategy to counter the U.S. and potentially Japan in any clash in the area — an area that includes both Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea, home to sea lanes critical to Japan’s economic well-being.
China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has boosted military activity near the self-ruled island in recent months, including the dispatch of 20 warplanes near the country late last month.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga emphasized the significance of Japan and the United States working closely to defuse soaring tensions over Taiwan, and the issue is expected to be at the top of the agenda when he meets U.S. President Joe Biden next week.
“The ability to fight an incoming American military intervention in the Philippine Sea, in particular, is seen as critical to securing Beijing’s objectives within the first island chain, be it the South China Sea or Taiwan,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow and maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Koh said that while Beijing may now be more confident in its military capabilities in its near seas, it’s a different story eastward of the first island chain, where there is a significant reduction in its access to land-based support from the mainland.
“So it’s now trying to attain the ability to carry out carrier strike group operations in this area so as to adequately deal with American naval power, which is itself centered around carrier capabilities,” Koh said.
“Therefore, this Liaoning transit through the Miyako Strait, in what is clearly seen as a carrier strike group formation, is more than just a transit,” he said.