What China's Defense Ministry deemed as routine exercises, was cause for grave concern among Taiwanese authorities as a strong Chinese fleet led by the Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier escorted by five other warships entered the top half of the South China Sea on Monday passing southeast of the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands.
The move comes amid renewed tension over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, ineligible for state-to-state relations, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's telephone call with the island's president that upset Beijing.
Senior Taiwan opposition Nationalist lawmaker Johnny Chiang said the Liaoning exercise was China's signal to the United States that it has broken through the first island chain, an area that includes Japan's Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said people should not read too much into what the carrier was up to, as its movements were within the law. Our Liaoning should enjoy in accordance with the law freedom of navigation and overflight as set by international law, and we hope all sides can respect this right of China's, she told a daily news briefing.
Influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said the exercise showed how the carrier was improving its combat capabilities and that it should now sail even further afield. China has been angered recently by U.S. naval patrols near islands that China claims in the South China Sea. This month, a Chinese navy ship seized a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea. China later returned it.
Japan's top government spokesman said on Monday the voyage showed China's expanding military capability and Japan was closely monitoring it.
The Liaoning is so far China's only aircraft carrier, but the Asian giant has been reported to be building a second one but its launch date is unclear, since the aircraft carrier program is a state secret. Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years, the Pentagon said in a report last year.
China claims most of the South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.