The Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong made a provocative passage through the Strait of Taiwan on Friday, just hours ahead of a scheduled phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping.
The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND) issued a brief statement acknowledging the passage of the Chinese carrier and stating Taiwan’s forces have a “full grasp” of Chinese activities in the Strait. This “full grasp” language is standard language appearing in nearly every MND statement about Chinese air and sea activity near the island.
A source who was “not authorized to speak to the media” told Reuters the Shandong sailed near the Taiwanese-controlled island of Kinmen at roughly 10:30 a.m. local time, where it was “photographed by a passenger on a civilian flight.” Observers said the Chinese carrier did not have any aircraft on deck.
Reuters’ source said the guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson shadowed the Shandong during part of its passage through the Taiwan Strait, as did Taiwanese warships.
There was no official statement about the Shandong from the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense on the incident as of Friday morning. A Navy spokesman confirmed the USS Ralph Johnson “conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit” but offered no further details.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian downplayed the incident when Reuters asked about it during a Friday morning press briefing. Zhao mocked Reuters for even asking the question, although he did not deny the Shandong passed through the Taiwan Strait as reported.
“This doesn’t fall within the purview of the foreign ministry, does it? You yourself wondered if it is a coincidence,” Zhao said, referring to the reporter’s question about whether the aircraft carrier’s transit was meant to send a message ahead of the Biden-Xi phone call.
“I’m not aware of the specific situation about the Shandong aircraft carrier you just mentioned. But I’m sure the aircraft carrier has routine training arrangements. One shouldn’t link this with the communication between the Chinese and U.S. heads of state,” Zhao said.
“Perhaps you are being sensitive, not the Taiwan Strait,” he chided the reported.
The Shandong is China’s second aircraft carrier, and the first to be constructed in China. It is a similar design to China’s first carrier, the Russian-built 1980s-era Liaoning, with some significant technical enhancements, including better radar and more space to carry and launch aircraft.
Shandong and Liaoning are much smaller and less capable than American carriers, but China’s as-yet-unnamed third carrier, expected to launch sometime this year, has been touted by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as a far more powerful and modern design with electromagnetic launch catapults.