Beijing: China conducted flight take-offs and landings on its Liaoning aircraft carrier over nearly a month of exercises, the first such drills on the vessel as the country modernizes its military arsenal and extends its reach at sea.

The Liaoning returned to Qingdao port on Wednesday after the training mission that involved J-15 fighter jets, the People’s Daily newspaper said in a front-page article. The Global Times newspaper posted pictures on its website of the yellow-painted prototype planes taking off from the Liaoning’s deck.

The exercises were the latest step in a carrier-development programme that has dovetailed with a Chinese push to assert its sovereignty more aggressively in disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in the East and South China seas. The Communist Party plans to boost military spending by 10.7% this year as it responds to a concurrent US push for more influence in the Asia-Pacific.

“It’s all part of a long-term training programme," Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said by phone. “We are getting indicators of a long-term intention, decisive intention, on the part of the Chinese to build up a carrier-based navy. That’s pretty much irrefutable."

The programme has moved quickly since the Liaoning, built with the hull of an unfinished Soviet-era ship that China bought in 1998 from Ukraine, was commissioned in September. In November, a J-15 jet landed on the carrier for the first time. Five months later, rear admiral Song Xue said China will build new aircraft carriers bigger than its first.

Regional tensions

The training occurred as tensions have risen between Japan and China over East China Sea islands claimed by both sides. Japan’s government bought the islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from their private owner last year, sparking protests across China.

Japan expressed grave concern to China on Wednesday about the apparent construction of a gas platform about 26km (16 miles) west of a line marking the two countries’ exclusive economic zones, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday.

“China has never rejected the so-called median line," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Thursday.

“It’s justified for China to carry out development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction," Hua said.

Modernization process

The domestically-produced J-15 is also part of the modernization process, and can carry weapons including anti- ship, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, as well as precision-guided bombs, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

“China now has the second-biggest military budget in the world after the US. The country will need several more years before the Liaoning is fully operational and it learns how to build its own carriers," according to Bitzinger.

“One carrier is symbolic but if you really want to have an effective carrier-based force you’ve really got to have two, three or four," Bitzinger said. “And building a carrier is going to be very challenging for them." BLOOMBERG

Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo and Michael Forsythe in Beijing contributed to this story.