Chinese Aircraft Carrier Sails into Pacific as State Media Mock U.S. Navy's Coronavirus Troubles

China's first aircraft carrier has sailed near disputed waters in the Pacific Ocean as the country's state-run media praised the country's military response to the novel coronavirus while it appeared to mock the United States' struggle with it.

People's Liberation Army Navy spokesperson Senior Captain Gao Xiucheng confirmed Monday that Chinese Type 001 aircraft carrier Liaoning and its five accompanying warships had transited the Miyako Strait between Japan's Ryukyu Islands and the Bashi Channel east of Taiwan toward the South China Sea as part of "routine" training maneuvers that kept both Tokyo and Taipei on edge over the weekend. The Japanese Defense Ministry said Saturday it was monitoring the Chinese maritime movements and its Taiwanese counterpart scrambled ships Sunday to surveil the exercises.

China, which has laid vast territorial claims off its coast and considers Taiwan a breakaway province, has sought to boost its military presence in the seas of East Asia. The ruling Chinese Communist Party's Global Times newspaper cited analysts as saying Sunday that the Liaoning's deployment showcases China's successful fight against COVID-19, particularly at a time when foreign aircraft carriers such as the U.S. Navy's USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Ronald Reagan, USS Carl Vinson and USS Nimitz had sailors testing positive for the coronavirus disease. The Navy reported Monday that one unidentified sailor from the USS Theodore Roosevelt died from the virus, which is believed to have originated in China late last year and official records show has since infected more people in the U.S. than in any other country.

The Global Times further highlighted the Pentagon's struggles Monday with an op-ed by Peking University Center for Maritime Strategy Studies director Hu Bo.

"As the most powerful military force in the world, with the highest level of combat readiness, the US military's failure to contain the virus has been disappointing," Hu wrote. "There are [a] number of reasons for this, such as the large number of personnel deployed overseas, poor military-political relations, and the absence preparedness. The crux of the problem, however, lies in the fact that the US military is facing a dilemma that is impossible to deal with. The US military and intelligence system realized early on the severity of the epidemic and took control measures, while repeatedly warning the White House and the Pentagon."

Hu called for "global cooperation" against the new coronavirus but argued that "China will naturally expand the range and intensity of its activity, and will safeguard its inherent maritime interests more resolutely and pursue a more open and inclusive international maritime security order."

china, aircraft, carrier, liaoning, pacific
This photo, taken on April 18, 2018, shows China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (C), sailing during a drill at sea. China has since deployed its second, debut domestically-produced aircraft carrier, the Type 002 Shandong, and others were believed to be in the works. AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has by far the largest aircraft carrier fleet in the world and has concentrated its naval power in the Asia-Pacific region, known to the U.S. and its allies as the Indo-Pacific, in recent years as a check on Chinese ambitions at sea. Washington has accused Beijing of militarizing islands and reefs subject to overlapping claims by several countries off the South China Sea.

On Thursday, the Pentagon said it was "greatly concerned" by reports that a Chinese coast guard ship had collided with a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the contested Paracel Islands. The military warned that China's "behavior stands in contrast to the United States' vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms."

"The United States will continue to support efforts by our allies and partners to ensure freedom of navigation and economic opportunity throughout the entire Indo-Pacific," the Pentagon added, noting that the "COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of the rules based international order, as it sets the conditions that enable us to address this shared threat in a way that is transparent, focused, and effective."

In a statement also sent to Newsweek Thursday, Navy spokesperson Lieutenant Commander Megan Isaac said: "our ships and carriers continue to serve and deploy around the world, ready to execute missions across the full spectrum of fleet operations to safeguard U.S. national interests and those of our allies, even in this crisis."

"The Navy protects its people and our people protect the nation," Isaac added. "The Navy is implementing safety mitigations to maintain the health and wellbeing of our Sailors and their families at units and installations around the globe."

The COVID-19 crisis has led to some turmoil within the ranks of the U.S. Navy. USS Theodore Roosevelt commanding officer Captain Brett Crozier was removed from his post earlier this month after his letter urging his superiors to take greater action to quarantine infected sailors was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle. Days later, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Molby visited the Guam-based aircraft carrier and defended Crozier's firing, accusing him of being either "too naive or too stupid" to command the shift, or of deliberately betraying the command in remarks heard by Newsweek.

Molby eventually apologized for his remarks and resigned the next day.

More than 1.8 million COVID-19 cases have been confirmed around the world as of Monday, killing more than 115,000 people with an additional 441,000 recovering. The U.S. has registered more than 550,000 instances of the coronavirus disease and 22,000 deaths, while China has reported 83,000 cases of the virus and about 3,300 deaths.

Washington and Beijing have argued over the origin of the disease and their respective handling of the pandemic but Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping have also called to work together. As the West struggled with the worst of the disease, a CIA document issued late last month and seen by Newsweek described a potential global shift in power favoring China and Russia as the U.S. sought to contain its outbreak at home.

Asked at Monday's White House press briefing about the Chinese aircraft carrier deployment amid state media claims about the U.S. Navy's COVID-19 struggles, President Donald Trump told reporters that "China has their own difficulties."

"We have a relationship with China that we're not happy with certain things that happened over the last period of time as you know, I've been very explicit about that, but we know all about that," Trump said. "We've seen what they did, we've seen many other things that they've done, both pro and con and we'll be just fine."

This article has been updated to include remarks by President Donald Trump.