China stages maritime exercise in South China Sea as US nuclear carrier sails by

President Xi Jinping on Thursday reviewed a massive drill by more than 100 Chinese Navy vessels in the South China Sea, which was launched as the US carried out what it described as a “routine” training exercise in nearby waters.

In a rare event, Xi boarded the destroyer Changsha and reviewed a fleet that included 76 combat ships and China’s lone aircraft carrier. He called on People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commanders to build a “world class navy” that would be ready as the country steps into a “new era”.

Xi said the navy has a big role to play in China’s rejuvenation, adding that the “task of building a strong people’s navy has never been as urgent as today”.

The three-day drill was launched in the South China Sea on Wednesday and features what the state media described as a “vast armada of ships”, including the aircraft carrier, submarines and combat ships.

The large-scale exercise reflects China’s growing maritime might as its naval exercises reach across seas, including the Indian Ocean. The Chinese Navy’s warships now spend longer periods at sea and the fleet is said to be rapidly adding combat ships. The first home-grown aircraft carrier is expected to be deployed later this year.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, conducted a training exercise earlier this week in the South China Sea, where China is locked in maritime territorial disputes with a number of countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. The US vessel was on its way to the Philippines.

The drill by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began off Hainan province’s southern coast on Wednesday even as – according to a report in Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post — it said it had completed a separate week-long series of “live-fire drills involving the aircraft carrier Liaoning to the east of the island, near the venue for the Boao Forum for Asia”, which was attended by President Xi Jinping.

“The Chinese Navy began a three-day series of exercises in the South China Sea on Wednesday,” state media quoted the Maritime Safety Administration as saying. It added that the navy had “released the coordinates of the drill zone – a rectangular area off Hainan province‘s southern coast – on its website on Tuesday, asking ships to stay out of the area”.

PLAN didn’t officially comment on the latest exercise but the Chinese military’s website featured a report by state-run China Daily on the drill.

“The information (about the naval drill) sparked a wave of speculation among Chinese military enthusiasts who, since last month, have been talking on internet forums about the possibility of a large display of the Navy‘s best ships and submarines in the South China Sea,” the China Daily reported.

“Some fans also posted what they claimed were satellite images of a vast armada of Chinese ships, including the CNS Liaoning aircraft carrier, gathering recently in the South China Sea area,” it added.

The Chinese Navy’s “combat ships and submarines now spend around eight months each year at sea, carrying out patrols, drills and other training operations – much longer than before”, PLAN announced in March. “As a result, their operational capabilities have improved substantially,” the navy said.

The China Daily report added, “In 2017, the Navy commissioned at least 16 ships, mostly large combat vessels. China is now building its second aircraft carrier and a new-generation guided missile destroyer believed to be the most powerful of its kind in the world.”

Cao Weidong, a military expert, told People’s Daily Online: “We’ve already accumulated data and experience during the building of the Liaoning aircraft carrier, and our experts and workers have been working hard in recent months with enough financial support. So I would not be surprised if the carrier is to conduct such a sea trial soon.”

The carrier is being built in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning by Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company. “All the equipment and devices on the carrier are in the joint debugging stage, and the main engine has been powered. In 2018, we will present a surprise to the Chinese people,” company chairperson Liu Zheng said last month.