BEIJING: China sent its sole aircraft carrier on a training mission into the South China Sea on Tuesday amid maritime disputes with some neighbours and tension over its plan to set up an airspace defence zone in waters disputed with Japan.
The Liaoning, bought used from Ukraine and refurbished in China, has conducted more than 100 exercises and experiments since it was commissioned last year but this is the first time it has been sent to the South China Sea.
Though considered decades behind U.S. technology, the Liaoning represents the Chinese navy's blue-water ambitions and has been the focus of a campaign to stir patriotism.
The Liaoning left port from the northern city of Qingdao accompanied by two destroyers and two frigates, the Chinese navy said on an official news website (http://navy.81.cn/).
While there, it will carry out "scientific research, tests and military drills", the report said.
"This is the first time since the Liaoning entered service that it has carried out long-term drills on the high seas," it added.
It did not specify exactly what training would be done, only noting that previous exercises involving aircraft landing and taking off had gone well and laid a firm foundation for future tests.
Previously reported training exercises have mostly been in the Yellow Sea.
China's Defence Ministry said on Monday that it had lodged formal protests with the U.S. and Japanese embassies after both countries criticised a Chinese plan to impose new rules on airspace over disputed waters in the East China Sea.
China also claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, overlapping claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.
That dispute is one of the region's biggest flashpoints amid China's military build-up and the U.S. strategic "pivot" back to Asia signalled by the Obama administration in 2011.
China's navy said the mission was routine, adding that the Liaoning was still in a testing phase.
"This test visit to the South China Sea is part of normal arrangements for testing and training for the Liaoning," it added.