China carrier steams towards disputed South China Sea for drills

Reuters

(Adds details, analyst quotes)

BEIJING, Nov 26 (Reuters) - China sent its sole aircraftcarrier on a training mission into the South China Sea onTuesday amid maritime disputes with the Philippines and otherneighbours and tension over its plan to set up an airspacedefence zone in waters disputed with Japan.

The Liaoning, bought used from Ukraine and refurbished inChina, has conducted more than 100 exercises and experimentssince it was commissioned last year but this is the first timeit has been sent to the South China Sea.

The Liaoning left port from the northern city of Qingdaoaccompanied by two destroyers and two frigates, the Chinese navysaid on an official news website (http://navy.81.cn/).

While there, it will carry out "scientific research, testsand military drills", the report said.

"This is the first time since the Liaoning entered servicethat it has carried out long-term drills on the high seas," itadded.

The timing of the drills is bound to raise eyebrows with itsneighbours, given the overlapping maritime disputes. China haslodged formal protests with the United States and Japan afterboth criticised its plan to impose new rules on airspace overdisputed waters in the East China Sea.

On Tuesday, Australia said it had summoned China'sambassador to express concern over its imposition of the AirDefence Identification Zone.

China also claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich SouthChina Sea, conflicting with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia,Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.

That dispute is one of the region's biggest flashpoints amidChina's military build-up and the U.S. strategic "pivot" back toAsia.

Though considered decades behind U.S. technology, theLiaoning represents the Chinese navy's blue-water ambitions andhas been the focus of a campaign to stir patriotism.

'NOT OVERLY CONCERNED'

Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the PhilippineInstitute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said hethought the Liaoning was still years away from representing areal threat.

"China is still developing its own model of carrieroperations and its technology is (far) behind the UnitedStates," he said. "Personally, I would not be overly concernedwith an old diesel-powered aircraft carrier on a trainingmission."

The navy did not specify exactly what training would bedone, only noting that previous exercises involving aircraftlanding and taking off had gone well.

Previously reported training exercises have mostly been inthe Yellow Sea, between China and the Korean peninsula.

"Obviously the Chinese authorities have been adopting aseries of measures to strengthen their claim on the sovereigntyof the disputed territories," said Joseph Cheng, a politicalscience professor at City University of Hong Kong.

"You see Japan and Southeast Asian countries have also beenmaking gestures and taking steps to strengthen sovereignty, soChina has to respond."

China's navy said the mission was routine, adding that theLiaoning was still in a testing phase.

"This test visit to the South China Sea is part of normalarrangements for testing and training for the Liaoning," itsaid.

"...Long cross-sea voyages are a necessary stage ofexperimentation and training to test equipment and troops undercontinuous work and different hydrological and meteorologicalconditions." (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by MeghaRajagopalan, and Manny Mogato in MANILA; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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