China says aircraft carrier group on way to South China Sea for drills
BEIJING (Reuters) - An aircraft carrier group led by China's newest airline, Shandong, has sailed across the strait on its way to routine exercises in the South China Sea, the Chinese Navy said on Monday after Taiwan mobilized its armed forces to monitor the strait excursion.
While this is not the first time China’s air carriers have passed near Taiwan, there is a period of heightened tension between Taipei and Beijing as they claim the democratically ruled island as their territory.
The Shandong Carrier Group sailed the Taiwan Strait the day after a U.S. warship crossed the same waterway. China's military said it was tracking the ship.
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China's Navy said the Shandong and its escort ships "smoothly" crossed the fragile and narrow strait on Sunday to practice in the South China Sea, where China is making extensive and controversial territorial gains.
The drills were part of the "normal precautions that were taken according to the annual plans," it said. "We will continue to organize similar operations based on training needs in the future."
Taiwan's Ministry of Defense said the Shandong was escorted by four warships and set out from the north China port of Dalian on Thursday. Taiwan said it sent six warships and eight air force planes to "keep watch" and monitor the movements of Chinese ships.
Shandong is China's second airline and was officially put into service almost exactly a year ago.
Since then, the company has successfully completed tasks such as launching and landing aircraft on a carrier basis and deploying its weapons, according to the Chinese Navy.
"The combat capability of the formation system has been continuously improved through experimental training," he added, referring to the group of warships accompanying the Shandong.
China has worked to improve its carrier operations but has little experience compared to the US, which has operated multi-ship integrated carrier battle groups for decades.
(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; writing by Ben Blanchard; editing by Tom Hogue and Kenneth Maxwell)
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