The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning is pictured in July 2014.

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning is pictured in July 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

China may deploy two aircraft carriers for the first time during an exercise in the South China Sea this summer, according to numerous media reports.

The Chinese carriers Liaoning and Shandong have been conducting combat readiness training in the Yellow Sea this month ahead of the deployment, the South China Morning Post reported Sunday.

“An aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands on its way to the exercise site to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea,” said the report, quoting an anonymous military source.

It’s unclear whether both the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, and the Shandong, commissioned at the end of last year, will proceed to the drills, the newspaper reported.

Britain’s Daily Mail reported Tuesday that plans to deploy the carriers play into fears of a Taiwan invasion after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters Sunday that “political forces in the U.S. are taking China-U.S. relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War.”

A dual-carrier deployment by China would be “more symbolic than substantive,” Paul Buchanan, an American security analyst based in Auckland, New Zealand, said Wednesday, noting that Beijing doesn’t have a lot of experience in carrier operations.

“They are posturing quite heavily,” he said, adding that such an exercise would hone the crews’ operational experience.

“I imagine the U.S. will be taking a close look. Of course, the Taiwanese will as well. All the countries adjacent with the South China Sea will sit up and take notice but they will know this is more of a display than anything else.”

The drills are a direct challenge to U.S. supremacy in the South China Sea, Buchanan added.

“The U.S. moves its carriers through there at will but now it has a serious contender to the throne,” he said.

The U.S. Navy still has the largest collection of aircraft carriers in the world.

On Friday, the Navy pointed out, seven of 11 carriers — the Ronald Reagan, Gerald R. Ford, Abraham Lincoln, Nimitz, Harry S. Truman, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower — were at sea.

The Chinese exercise comes at a time of heightened U.S. military activity in the region.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan left Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, a week ago on a routine patrol of the Western Pacific, just ahead of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which returned to duty after a two-month layover in Guam due to a coronavirus outbreak among its crew in late March.

In mid-May, the Navy sent two littoral combat ships and a supply ship on patrol near a Malaysian drill rig in disputed waters of the South China Sea. The rig had been shadowed by Chinese research, coast guard and militia vessels, according to the Reuters news agency.

On April 28, the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry steamed near the Paracel Islands, and the following day the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill passed by the Spratly Islands, both on freedom-of-navigation operations, according to the Navy.

On April 30, two B-1B bombers flew over the South China Sea to demonstrate the Air Force’s new “dynamic force employment model.”

Pacific Air Forces tweeted Wednesday that B-1B Lancers from the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, flew a mission out of Guam over the South China Sea Tuesday.

That day, plane spotters tweeted flight information showing that two B-1Bs and a refueling aircraft flew past southern Taiwan and close to Hong Kong. Twitter: @SethRobson1

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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