The Taiwanese military was caught off guard when Beijing’s first homemade aircraft carrier quietly sailed from its northern homeport of Dalian all the way down to the island’s littoral waters and then through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday.

It was not until the 65,000-ton seagoing airbase, hailed as the largest Asian naval vessel of its kind, emerged from the mist not far from northern Taiwan that the territory’s military scrambled warplanes and dispatched warships to monitor the surprise deployment.

Referred to simply as the Type 001A, the carrier was modeled on her sister ship, the Soviet-built Liaoning.  As its previous sea trials were confined to the Bohai and Yellow Seas in northern China, it was not considered an imminent threat to the self-ruling island.

The new carrier’s maiden “expedition” via a narrow stretch of water separating Taiwan and mainland China has jolted the island’s leaders and military out of their false sense of security.

It has also been reported that when Taiwan rushed to respond when the carrier bore down on the island, with Taiwanese officials not sure if it would veer across the tacit median line, the carrier group was also trailed by Japanese and American warships.

China's homemade carrier, known as Type 001A, at the Dalian Shipyard after it returned from its second sea trial. Photo: Weibo via VCG
China’s homemade carrier, Type 001A, at Dalian Shipyard after it returned from sea trials earlier this year. Photo: Weibo via VCG

At the time of the deployment, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was announcing the selection of her running mate, former premier William Lai, who is known for his strong pro-independence posture, at a press conference as the island gears up for elections in January.

“Voters won’t be intimidated! They’ll say NO to China at the ballot box,” tweeted Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

On Monday in Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry noted that the “routine deployment” within China’s territorial waters was blown out of proportion by Taiwanese and foreign media. On the flight deck of the new carrier, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) spokesperson told state broadcaster China Central Television that it could be the final deployment before it is commissioned.

The carrier is now believed to be navigating the northern waters of the South China Sea.

Chinese media have speculated that the carrier’s route may indicate that it could soon enter service with the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet,  headquartered in Zhanjiang in Guangdong province. It is tasked with patrolling those waters water to support Beijing’s territorial claims, which cover almost the entire sea.

Experts say it makes sense for Beijing to deploy its newest carrier closer to potential flashpoints, including Taiwan and disputed waters in the South China Sea, while the refurbished Liaoning, which will be approaching the end of its service life within the next decade, will guard China’s northern coast and its calmer waters. It will also serve as a training platform to groom more shipborne pilots and technicians for the new carrier and future vessels either being built or planned.

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