A naval formation consisting of China’s first aircraft carrier and five other vessels sailed in waters south of Taiwan and cruised past the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島), with Taiwan’s military aircraft and vessels closely monitoring the situation and ready to respond, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said yesterday.
The Chinese flotilla sailed 20 nautical miles (37km) outside Taiwan’s southeastern air defense zone on Sunday night. Yesterday morning, the fleet reached an area 90 nautical miles south of Pingtung County’s Oluanpi (鵝鑾鼻), the nation’s southernmost tip, the ministry said.
The Soviet-built aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was southeast of the Taiwan-held Pratas Islands in the South China Sea as of 2pm yesterday and was sailing southwest. China also claims the Pratas Islands.
The ministry said it is closely monitoring the movements of the flotilla, adding that it has mobilized military aircraft and ships to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
According to photographs posted by Hualien residents and local media reports, the air force scrambled two F-16 jets and two RF-16 reconnaissance aircraft from an air base in Hualien County to track the Liaoning and its escort vessels, with the RF-16 reportedly taking photographs of the flotilla.
In addition, E-2K Hawkeye surveillance aircraft were scrambled from an air force base in Pingtung, while P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft were also deployed to patrol Taiwan’s territorial waters, and the navy deployed Cheng Kung-class frigates and Lafayette-class frigates to monitor northeastern and southwestern areas, according to reports.
However, the ministry refused to comment on the reports, saying only that the aircraft and vessels were conducting a joint surveillance operation.
The ministry also refused to reveal whether the Liaoning and the other vessels had conducted an open-sea exercise in the western Pacific or if it was escorted by submarines.
“The MND has kept a close watch on Chinese military activities and the aircraft carrier fleet has navigated outside Taiwan’s air defense identification zone without encroachment of Taiwanese territory,” ministry spokesman Major General Chen Chung-chi (陳中吉) said.
The Liaoning was heading for the South China Sea on a long-distance open-water training mission.
The flotilla sailed through the Miyako Strait between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa on Sunday before reaching the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.
The mission is the first time that a Chinese aircraft carrier has sailed beyond the first island chain to the Pacific Ocean.
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