The deployment of the warship and its escorts comes amid high tensions between China and the United States, and following Chinese pledges in 2021 to conduct more frequent aircraft carrier operations. The U.S. has since the 1940s based a large proportion of its forces in the Western Pacific on Okinawa, which although now part of Japan was under American military rule until the 1970s and remains a key hub of American operations.
The Liaoning’s fighters, although thought to be primarily equipped for air to air combat, are also capable of deploying a range of standoff precision guided munitions which can threaten enemy ships and military facilities at range.
Although the carrier is one of the largest in the world outside the United States Navy, however, its ability to deliver strikes remains relatively limited with its accompanying destroyers and submarines armed with state of the art cruise missiles potentially posing a much greater challenge to the defences of U.S. facilities on Okinawa.
The Liaoning was the first Chinese aircraft carrier ever launched, having been commissioned in 2012, and in 2019 was repurposed from a training carrier into a fully capable combat vessel.
The ship is one of five Chinese carriers to have been launched, alongside its sister ship the Shandong which was commissioned in 2019 and three Type 075 Class helicopter carriers.
A sixth much larger carrier is expected to be launched within weeks, and will be the only supercarrier operational sailing outside the United States Navy and the only ship class in the world other than the American Gerald Ford Class with electromagnetic catapult launch systems.
The new carrier is expected to deploy enhanced variants of the J-15 fighter currently fielded on the Liaoning, as well as stealth fighters based on the FC-31 prototype and a range of drones, electronic attack jets and other support aircraft.