Chinese aircraft carrier heads to South China Sea

BEIJING — China’s sole aircraft carrier departed for its first-ever sea trials in the South China Sea Tuesday, a mission likely to draw scrutiny amid Beijing’s drive to assert its claims to those waters and their island groups.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the cruise aims to test the Liaoning’s crew and equipment over long distances and a variety of sea conditions.

It said the ship was accompanied by two destroyers and a missile cruiser when it left its northern home port of Qingdao. The Liaoning has launched and recovered jet fighters but not yet been given its full complement of aircraft.

The carrier was bought from Ukraine more than a decade ago and extensively refurbished before entering service last year. At 57,000 tons, the Liaoning is a little over half the size of the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz class carriers.

Since then, it has conducted several rounds of sea trials off China’s northeast coast, but hasn’t ventured as far as the South China Sea. China has developed civilian and military outposts there and used its coast guard to confront the ships of other nations that also claim parts of the sea.

China has described the carrier as an experimental platform but hasn’t said whether it will play an active service role. The lengthy refurbishment was seen as a learning exercise for the building of China’s own carriers, now believed to be under construction.

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