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A Japanese defence destroyer spotted China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in the central part of the East China Sea for the first time, the Japan’s Defence Ministry said early Sunday.

The fleet consists of seven other vessels – three guided-missile destroyers, three frigates and one supply ship – and was cruising eastward when the Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer spotted it at around 4 p.m.

While the ministry has not disclosed anything more on the fleet’s movements, the MSDF is closely monitoring if the Chinese naval vessels transit waters near Japan.

Xinhua reported Saturday that a naval formation including the Liaoning headed for the western Pacific the same day for an open-sea training exercise.

In recent days military the first aircraft carrier group has carried out a series of fighter launch, recovery and air combat exercises in the Yellow Sea ahead of the scheduled voyage farther afield.

China’s Defence Ministry announced late Friday that the Liaoning carrier group conducted the drills in the Yellow Sea in recent days, adding that the group “as a next step will conduct scheduled cross-sea training and tests.”

The Liaoning, commissioned by China’s navy in 2012, first sailed to the South China Sea in 2013, when it docked at a navy base near the Chinese holiday resort of Sanya. The vessel at the time was not outfitted with a full aircraft complement.

The Liaoning carried out its first live-fire exercise last week, with the military releasing video footage that showed Chinese J-15 fighters launching missiles and hitting targets.

State broadcaster China Central Television on Saturday showed footage of the Liaoning launching a large contingent of J-15 fighters. The navy’s top commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, was shown onboard watching the exercises.

Beijing has said the carrier, built from an incomplete hull from Ukraine, would be used mostly for training and research as it prepares to deploy its first home-grown carrier, but it is widely viewed by analysts as a strategic piece in China’s increasingly assertive claims in the South China Sea.

Kyodo, Associated Press

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