China will conduct drills in the South China Sea from Thursday to April 11, an opportunity that might be taken to improve aircraft carrier Liaoning's combat capability.
After Hainan Maritime Safety Administration announced the drills last week, Reuters reported that some 40 ships and submarines flanking the aircraft carrier Liaoning have entered the South China Sea as seen on satellite images.
The Chinese defense ministry has not confirmed the number of vessels or the presence of the Liaoning.
"If the satellite pictures are accurate, these vessels could have come from three fleets of the Chinese navy, which shows that China is capable of assembling a large battle array in the South China Sea," Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
The drills will be an excellent opportunity to improve the Liaoning's combat capability as past drills focused more on the carrier's training and scientific research, Li said.
He added China's air force and rocket force are likely to join the exercises.
"With the combat ability of Liaoning improving, the Chinese navy may change from mixed combat model to a carrier-oriented model when conducting military operation in the high sea. The aircraft carrier is expected to play a major role in defending the South China Sea," said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator.
He added that China should conduct drills in the region more frequently and regularly to improve military combat capabilities and be prepared for possible conflicts.
The US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Singapore for a regularly scheduled port visit on Monday, according to the US Navy's website.
After the scheduled visit, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group will continue training with allies and partners in the US 7th Fleet area of operations.
Meanwhile, EU's head of security policy Francois Rivasseau told The Australian Financial Review the possibility of European navies conducting freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea could not be ruled out in the future.
The Chinese navy drills are related to the changing international situation as some countries have made moves that strategically target China, Chen Xiangmiao, a research fellow at the National Institute for the South China Sea, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
The constant meddling of these Western countries on the South China Sea issue proves their anxiety toward China's growing ability to defend its sovereignty, Chen said.
He added that the drills also aim to show that China is fully capable of safeguarding its national interests in the region, and to send a clear message to potential invaders.
The US, Japan, Australia and India are promoting cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and Britain was reportedly considering sending a warship to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea this year.
Beijing and Washington may have more conflicts if the US keeps challenging China on the South China Sea issue, Chen said.
Forming closer ties with Southeast Asian countries may help China balance the US and other Western countries, because some of these countries may worry that Sino-US competition may affect regional stability, Chen noted.
At an ASEAN summit in November 2017, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China and Southeast Asian nations will start consultations on the text of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.