The Ministry of National Defense is paying close attention to ongoing maneuvers southeast of Taiwan by a fleet of Chinese navy vessels that includes one of the heaviest combat ships in the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
According to Japanese media, the Japan Self-Defense Forces first spotted the group of five Chinese vessels 650km southwest of Okinawa on Sunday after they had crossed the Strait of Miyako.
The five vessels from the Chinese navy’s South Sea Fleet – Type 052B destroyers Guangzhou and Wuhan; Type 054A frigates Yulin and Chaohu; and Type 071 landing platform dock (LPD) Kunlun Shan – left from Hainan Island and entered the Taiwan Strait, before making a right turn about 180km off Taiwan.
At 18,000 tonnes, the Kunlun Shan is one of the largest combat vessels in the Chinese navy. The LPD, which can support a reinforced battalion of as many as 800 marines and can carry landing craft and medium-sized helicopters, took part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in 2010.
After entering the Pacific, the vessels conducted tactical formation and helicopter training missions in international waters about halfway between Taiwan and the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Aside from a Taiwan contingency, Chinese LPDs could play a crucial role in operations in the South China Sea against countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, with which Beijing has become embroiled in disputes over contested islets.
Commenting on the developments, deputy minister of National Defense Chao Shih-chang (???) told the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee yesterday that the ministry was closely monitoring the Chinese fleet and that it would continue to pay attention to its movements.
“Because the fleet is in international waters, its presence does not threaten Taiwan’s security for the moment,” he said.
Chao said the ministry believed the Chinese fleet was on a routine training exercise and that it was normal for any country to train their navy in international waters.
An unnamed navy official told the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) that the navy was studying the fleet’s intentions and monitoring whether it would -return to China by the same route or move to another area.
The rapidly modernising Chinese navy has increased the frequency of its sorties in recent years. A number of those, the latest in February, have made encirclement-like maneuvers around Taiwan.
Many sorties have also taken Chinese vessels to waters near Japan and beyond the first island chain, which Beijing regards as an artificial line preventing it from breaking out as a sea power.
On April 29, three Chinese warships – Type 054A frigates Zhoushan and Xuzhou; and the electronic reconnaissance and missile tracking ship Beijixing – were seen 430km west of the Japanese island of Yakushima in Kagoshima Prefecture. It was the first time in nine years that Chinese navy vessels had passed through the Osumi Strait, which serves as a main transit route for the US Seventh Fleet.
Late last month, the Japanese military reported that Japan Air Self-Defense Force fighter aircraft were scrambled 156 times in response to Chinese naval aircraft approaching Japanese airspace last year, a record high since the Japanese military started releasing such data by country in 2001.
Japan said that flight patterns by Chinese aircraft had diversified, with intelligence-gathering planes becoming increasingly involved.