China’s First Aircraft Carrier Sails Into South China Sea

December 26, 2016 Updated: December 26, 2016

China’s first aircraft carrier and five other warships passed by Taiwan and sailed into the contested South China Sea on Monday, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry told The Associated Press on Monday.

The ships sailed past the disputed Pratas Islands, also known as the Dongsha Islands, which are controlled by Taiwan, located in the northern portion of the South China Sea, the defense ministry added.

The Taiwanese ministry said the Liaoning and warships had on Sunday sailed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan in the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines.

Chinese state media said that “Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning,” sailed into the West Pacific for training, the BBC reported.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry told Reuters that it had been monitoring the drills closely as the aircraft carrier sailed between the Mikayo Strait that separates the Japanese islands Okinawa and Miyako before it went out to the Pacific.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Defense Ministry noted that Liaoning as part of Chinese ships in the central portion of the East China Sea on Saturday, adding they didn’t enter Japanese waters, The Japan News reported.

The Japanese ministry said that Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force has visually confirmed the Chinese aircraft carrier for the very first time. “We’ll make utmost efforts and continue our warning and surveillance activities,” an official told the website.

Tensions have mounted in the South China Sea, where the U.S. and China accuse each other of engaging in a dangerous military buildup. China claims nearly all of the sea and is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs, and lagoons.

The U.S.-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative think tank said this month that satellite imagery showed China building large anti-aircraft guns on artificial islands in the contested waters, where China has also laid airstrips, built communications facilities and deployed suspected missiles.

The Liaoning, commissioned by the Chinese navy in 2012, first sailed to the South China Sea in 2013, when it docked at a navy base near the Chinese holiday resort of Sanya. The vessel at the time was not outfitted with a full aircraft complement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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