A large number of Chinese naval vessels have been spotted entering the Philippine Sea in recent days, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, leading to what analysts are saying could be the most powerful deployment ever by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
A total of 11 Chinese warships have been spotted in recent days passing by the string of Japanese islands that extend south toward Taiwan, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning and three of the PLAN’s mighty Type 055 destroyers.
According to Japanese military officials, the PLAN task force included the Liaoning, the Type 055 guided-missile destroyers Wuxi and Anshan, the Type 054A frigate Zaozhuang, the Type 052D destroyer Chengdu, and the Type 901 comprehensive replenishment ship Hulunhu.
On Friday, the flotilla passed through the Miyako Strait, a strategic 135-mile-wide gap in the string of islands stretching from the Japanese home islands to Taiwan.
Separately last week, Japanese military officials reported that a task force led by the Type 055 destroyer Lhasa and including the Type 052D destroyer Kaifeng and Type 903A replenishment ship Taihu had also entered the Philippine Sea from the East China Sea, this time via the Osumi Strait.
The narrow waterway, which passes between the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Tanegashima, was made international waters by Japan during the Cold War so that US nuclear weapons-laden warships could transit without violating Tokyo’s ban on nuclear weapons in its territory.
In addition, a Dongdiao-class surveillance ship and the Sovremenny-class destroyer Taizhou, one of four built by Russia for China, were also reported passing through the Miyako Strait into the Philippine Sea days earlier.
However, it should be noted that there have not been any reports that the three groups of vessels have united for joint drills.
Experts told Chinese media that Chinese aircraft carriers have only ever deployed with one Type 055 at a time, so the inclusion of at least two, and possibly three of the warships in the task force would likely mean new types of drills to better incorporate them.
The PLAN has eight Type 055’s, which are the second-largest surface combat vessels in service with any nation, eclipsed only by the US Navy’s handful of Zumwalt-class destroyers.
They carry a bevy of advanced radar and missile systems, including hyper-sonic weapons.
The Philippine Sea occupies a highly strategic position, being bordered on the east by the US island of Guam, which holds a large naval and air base; US allies Japan in the north and the Philippines in the south; and Taiwan in the west, a Chinese island controlled by rebel forces who enjoy the support of the US and its allies in the region.
Several times in the past year, the Philippine Sea has been home to Chinese drills intended to send a message to Taiwanese separatists and the foreign powers who support them.
During May drills, the diesel-fueled Liaoning pushed the limits of its deployment abilities, staying in the Philippine Sea for several weeks as it conducted continuous aviation operations with its air wing of J-15 Flying Shark fighters, part of the Su-27-derived family of fighter aircraft.
However, the USA and Japan also regularly drill in the Philippine Sea, sending out maritime patrols and conducting their own carrier drills.
Until just a few years ago, American domination of the waterway was unquestioned, but the PLAN’s construction of three aircraft carriers and a slew of modern warships has enabled it to project power beyond the Miyako and Luzon straits on a regular basis.
The Chinese drills come just days after Japan announced major moves toward remilitarization, decades after being made a neutral state.
When Tokyo was defeated at the end of World War II and forced to give up its sprawling colonial empire, its new constitution required it to be neutral and give up offensive military weapons.
However, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida revealed within a couple of days earlier in December the intention to double the Japanese defense budget over the next five years.
Sputnik / ABC Flash Point News 2022.