This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China’s aircraft carrier the Shandong left the Western Pacific and returned to its usual operational area, the South China Sea, the Japanese Ministry of Defense has said.
Ten days before this, the Chinese carrier was operating just less than 400 miles from the U.S.’s Guam island.
The Japan Joint Staff said in a statement that the Shandong carrier group of seven vessels was spotted on Monday evening about 360 kilometers (224 miles) south of Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture.
Yonaguni is Japan’s southernmost island, only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Taiwan.
The group was then sailing towards the South China Sea, the statement said, adding that at the same time, a carrier-based fighter J-15 jet and a Z-18J helicopter were seen practicing landings and take-offs.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense also confirmed that the Shandong and its accompanying ships were passing through waters southeast of the island into the South China Sea.
The group consists of the aircraft carrier, one Type 055 large destroyer, two Type 052D destroyers, two Type 054A frigates, and a Type 901 comprehensive replenishment ship.
The Japanese defense ministry said it has been tracking the Shandong’s movements since April 7 when the Chinese carrier began conducting exercises in the Western Pacific.
During a period of 18 days until April 25, carrier-borne aircraft performed about 620 sorties. To compare, another Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, hosted about 320 sorties in 15 days last time it was operating in the same area.
Over the weekend, the Chinese military also sent four H-6K/J bombers from the East China Sea through the Miyako Strait to the West Pacific to conduct joint exercise with the Shandong carrier group.
Before that, the Shandong, China’s second aircraft carrier, took part in combat patrols and the ‘Joint Sword’ military drills in the waters east of Taiwan from April 7-12.
The drills were held by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command in response to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s transits in the United States and her meeting on April 5 with the U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.
Tsai’s trip and the meeting angered Beijing which threatened “resolute measures” against what it called “separatist” efforts by the Taiwanese leader and her party.
The Chinese newspaper Global Times reported that the Shandong carrier group conducted “intensive drills” near the U.S. island territory of Guam on April 13-16, reaching about 600 kilometers (372 miles) to 700 kilometers (434 miles) to the west of Guam.
The Global Times said Guam, a militarized island, is considered by the U.S. “a key node in the second island chain.”
China refers to the chain of main archipelagos surrounding the East Asian continental mainland, as well as Japan and Taiwan, as the first island chain; while the second island chain includes Guam and other U.S. island territories in the Marianas in the Western Pacific.
The Guam-based Pacific Daily News last week quoted a U.S. Navy spokesperson as saying that the Navy “is aware of and monitoring the situation, and is in continuous communication” with the authorities.
Lt. Cmdr. Katie Koenig from the Joint Region Marianas was quoted as saying that “the military here remains keenly postured to defend United States equities and interests in this region from any adversary that may threaten national and international norms and rules-based order.”
The Chinese newspaper China Daily reported on Friday that the Liaoning, has also “recently carried out multiple exercises in the Western Pacific.”
That led to the assumption that the two Chinese carriers — Liaoning and Shandong — were operating together in the Pacific.