U.S. Warship Shadows China's Aircraft Carrier On Journey Home

An American warship found itself in the middle of a Chinese navy flotilla on Monday as it shadowed the group led by aircraft carrier Liaoning out of South China Sea and into the Western Pacific.

Satellite images captured Liaoning and five People's Liberation Army escort vessels sailing in the Philippine Sea, while a conspicuous U.S. Navy vessel—likely an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer—followed closely behind.

#OSINT #PLAN #USNavy #PhilippineSea Liaoning carrier strike group in the Philippine Sea, 26-04-2021. Heading towards the Miyako Strait, still shadowed by a US Arleigh Burke class. Images @planetlabs . pic.twitter.com/T1A4CNOdnC

— OSINT-1 (@OSINT_1) April 26, 2021

The PLA Navy's first aircraft carrier is on a return journey to the East China Sea after a month-long deployment in the South China Sea, where it conducted exercises in view of American and Japanese naval assets.

Although it is routine for the navies of different countries to observe each other at sea, it was highly unusual for the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to sail into Liaoning's flotilla unimpeded, said Taipei-based defense analyst Su Tzu-yun.

Su, a fellow at Taiwan's government-backed Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), said the PLA may have been trying to send a political message by allowing the U.S. Navy warship into the formation.

"The Chinese military was trying to lower the threat of the American vessel by letting it observe its operations up close," Su added. "It wants to give an impression of transparency like the U.S. Navy."

#海上自衛隊 は、中国海軍の空母「#遼寧」を含む艦艇6隻が沖縄本島と宮古島の間の海域を北上し、東シナ海へ向けて航行したことを確認しました。自衛隊は、引き続き、我が国周辺海空域における #警戒監視活動 等に万全を期して参ります。 pic.twitter.com/ZabF59FulV

— 防衛省統合幕僚監部 (@jointstaffpa) April 27, 2021

On Tuesday, Japan's defense ministry said the six vessels of the Liaoning task group had sailed through the Miyako Strait between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa.

The same complement of Chinese warships—including Renhai-class Type 055 destroyer Nanchang, two Luyang II-class destroyers, one Jiangkai II-class frigate and a Fuyu-class supply ship—made the journey in the opposite direction on April 3 before announcing combat drills near Taiwan.

While returning to the East China Sea, the carrier launched a Z-18 airborne early warning helicopter and flew it within 30 miles of the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, according to the report by the Japanese defense ministry's Joint Staff.

The Senkakus are also claimed by the Chinese government, which refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands. Chinese and Japanese coast guard vessels have had several run-ins around the uninhabited islets this year—especially concerning to Tokyo since Beijing introduced its new Coast Guard Law.

Communist Party newspaper the Global Times said the Liaoning carrier group had patrolled the Senkakus as a "warning to Japan" following repeated "wrong statements" about the disputed islands.

The state-owned tabloid predicted similar PLA operations would "become routine depending on China-Japan relations."

That the Chinese aircraft carrier took a detour through the Western Pacific to reach the East China Sea instead of transiting the Taiwan Strait was not an accident, said INDSR analyst Su.

"If the carrier group had used the Taiwan Strait, China would have lost its ability to signal its power projection capabilities in the first island china," he told Newsweek.

Su's analysis puts Liaoning as part of China's green-water navy, which describes a maritime force operating in a country's littoral zones.

"Liaoning is not a blue-water navy vessel because it still needs land-based aircraft support," he said, adding: "But when China's third carrier launches, that will be a true blue-water navy vessel capable of carrying its own airborne early warning aircraft."

U.S. Warship Shadows Homebound Chinese Carrier Group
A flotilla of Chinese naval vessels led by aircraft carrier Liaoning in the East China Sea. AFP via Getty Images

Correction 4/29/21, 12:30 p.m. ET: This article was updated to correct the designation of Luyang II-class destroyers.