BEIJING — China’s Defense Ministry said the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s only entirely home-built aircraft carrier is performing sea trials to test weapons and equipment as well as enhance training of the crew.
Ministry spokesperson Ren Guoqiang said Friday the exercises were being conducted as planned, apparently unaffected by the country’s coronavirus outbreak.
The Shandong’s commissioning last year by Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored the country’s rise as a regional naval power at a time of tensions with the U.S. and others over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
It is the second Chinese aircraft carrier to enter service after the Liaoning, which was originally purchased as a hull from Ukraine and entirely refurbished.
Both are based on a Soviet design with a ”ski jump”-style flight deck for takeoffs rather than the flat decks used by much larger U.S. aircraft carriers. It is powered by a conventional, oil-fueled steam turbine power plant, compared to the nuclear fuel used by American carriers and submarines.
China is seen as striving to overtake the U.S. as the dominant naval power in Asia and already boasts the world’s largest navy in numbers of vessels.
Beijing says aircraft carriers are needed to protect its coastline and trade routes, but they are also seen as a means to back its claims to self-governing Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The highly secretive Chinese military was credited with aiding in the response to the epidemic in the epicenter of Wuhan earlier this year, but no information has been released about cases among military personnel or any change in the armed forces’ readiness status.
The U.S. Navy, in contrast, saw a public controversy over the spread of the coronavirus aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the firing of the ship’s skipper in April.
The Roosevelt was operating in the Western Pacific when the first crew members fell sick in late March. About 1,100 crew members eventually tested positive for the cornonavirus and one died. The ship was sidelined on Guam for nearly two months.