HONG KONG/BEIJING - When a Chinese warship escorting the country's only aircraft carrier forced a US guided missile cruiser to take evasive action this month to avoid a collision, it was protecting an exercise rich in both military and political significance.
The drills off the coast of Hainan Island mark not only the first time Beijing has sent a carrier into the disputed South China Sea but the first time it has manoeuvred with the kind of strike group of escort ships US carriers deploy, regional military officers and analysts said.
"This is about China's naval capabilities but it has a definite political edge, too," said Ross Babbage, a former Australian government strategic analyst and founder of the Kokoda Foundation think-tank in Canberra.
"China is demonstrating its major power status to the region by sending its carrier into the South China Sea ... and the US is signaling in return: 'Remember we are still here and we are still the biggest player.'"
The USS Cowpens narrowly avoided colliding with the Chinese warship while operating in international waters on Dec. 5, the US Navy has said. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday called the Chinese ship's actions "irresponsible."
China's official Xinhua News Agency said the Cowpens was "warned" by the carrier task force, adding the US vessel was "intentionally" putting the Liaoning under surveillance.
The Chinese exercises - described by its navy as "scientific research, tests and military drills" - are due to end on Jan. 3. China's military has said little else about them. The Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the exercises.
The Liaoning - a Soviet-era ship bought from Ukraine in 1998 and re-fitted in a Chinese shipyard - has long been a symbol of China's naval build-up.
After two decades of double-digit increases to the military budget, China's admirals plan to develop a full blue-water navy capable of defending Beijing's broadening economic interests as well as disputed territory in the South and East China Seas.