Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that China’s only aircraft carrier had transited the Taiwan Strait amid soaring tensions between Beijing and Taipei.
The ministry said the Liaoning carrier had passed through the 160 kilometer-wide (100-km-wide) waterway that separates Taiwan from southeastern China. It said the carrier, which was accompanied by warships, had not entered Taiwan’s territorial waters, but had ventured into the self-ruled island nation’s air defense identification zone.
The Defense Ministry urged calm, and local media reports said Taipei had dispatched fighter jets to monitor the warships.
“The military is monitoring the whole situation and will act as necessary. We urge Taiwan’s people to be at ease,” it said in a statement early Wednesday.
By midday, the ministry said the carrier was moving north along the mainland’s coast.
“There is currently no navy or air force activity out of the ordinary,” it said.
The carrier was returning from high-profile exercises in the disputed South China Sea, where it was testing weapons and maneuvers, to its home port in the northern city of Qingdao.
Last month, ahead of the drills in the South China Sea, the Liaoning, accompanied by three guided-missile destroyers and two frigates, cruised into the Western Pacific Ocean for the first time via the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako Island.
China has ramped up its military moves near Taiwan in recent weeks after a congratulatory phone call by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Tsai’s transit in recent days of through the United States threatened to upend decades of diplomatic status quo under the so-called one-China policy.
Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force, if necessary.
A Chinese spokesperson on Wednesday warned of “increasing uncertainties, risks and challenges” in relations with Taiwan in 2017, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
“Taiwan saw major changes to its political landscape in 2016 and the cross-Strait situation became more complicated,” Ma Xiaoguang, with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, was quoted as saying.
Ma said that the changes last year show that “only by sticking to the 1992 consensus, which reflects the one-China principle, could cross-Strait ties see steady development and develop further, while destroying this political foundation would see a storm gather over the Strait.”
The show of force by Beijing has stoked concern in Tokyo and Taipei over China’s growing military might, and that it might use this to reinforce its claims to disputed territory.
China has reclaimed more than 1,280 hectares (3,200 acres) of land on seven features it occupies in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly chain. The U.S. says the man-made islets give it long-term “civil-military” outposts from where it can project power.
The recent carrier drills are likely to put more muscle behind Beijing’s moves in the disputed South China Sea — and beyond.
According to a commentary Sunday in the Chinese state-run People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the Liaoning will continue to operate deeper into the Pacific.
“The first island chain can no longer impact the Chinese military to any great extent. Crossing it has become the new normal, ” the commentary said in reference to a strategically important entryway into the Western Pacific that includes Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.
“The aircraft carrier is not an otaku,” it said, referring to a Japanese term whose original meaning has morphed in Chinese usage to mean shut-in, or hikikomori in Japanese. “It will sooner or later cross the second island chain (east of Japan) and reach the Eastern Pacific.”
The Soviet-built Liaoning, refurbished by China, was only described as having a “real combat capacity” by defense officials in November. It had previously been portrayed in Chinese media as a surface platform for tests and training.
The carrier, which was purchased as an incomplete hull from Ukraine in 1998, was commissioned in 2012.
China is also in the process of constructing its first indigenously built carrier. The Defense Ministry said in October that work was proceeding smoothly, with the hull having already been assembled.