China's PLA Navy Conducts Largest-Ever Carrier Drill in the Pacific

The PLA Navy carrier Shandong conducts air operations off Japan, Sept. 10 (JMSDF)

Published Sep 12, 2023 3:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

China's PLA Navy has launched the largest carrier exercise it has ever conducted outside of the First Island Chain, deploying one of its flat-tops alongside a fleet of more than 20 escorts. 

Defense analysts told the FT that this unprecedented flotilla is operating in the Philippine Sea, between Taiwan and Guam - an area of high strategic importance for U.S. forces. The main access route from the Pacific to the South China Sea passes through this region, and in the event of a contingency in the Taiwan Strait or the Spratly Islands, it would be one of the gateways for bringing U.S. Navy assets to the fight.

Taiwanese forces detected the carrier Shandong passing through the strait between the Philippines and Taiwan on Monday, and surveillance carried out by Japanese and Taiwanese assets revealed a total of more than 20 warships transiting out to join her.

Shandong is a ski-jump carrier, lacking a catapult launch system, and this limits the range and capacity of her air wing. The next PLA Navy carrier in line, the Fujian, is larger and is catapult-equipped; when delivered, Fujian could pose a real threat to Taiwanese forces, according to Taiwan's defense ministry. 

The mass deployment demonstrates the willingness of PLA Navy forces to operate further and further from their home shores. It also follows a period of heightened activity by China's neighbors and competitors, and could be viewed as a response. U.S., Japanese, Australian and Philippine forces conducted their first-ever joint naval exercise together last month in drills off Manila; the USS Ralph Johnson and HMCS Ottawa completed a transit of the Taiwan Strait last week; and the amphib USS America - itself a miniature carrier - will soon be conducting a large amphibious assault exercise with South Korean forces in the Yellow Sea. It will be the first large-scale U.S. Navy deployment to the Yellow Sea in the better part of a decade, and would be comparable in proximity to a large Chinese deployment in the Gulf of Mexico.