PLAN Vessels Mobilize in South China Sea: A Timeline

Open water imagery acquired by Planet Labs on 26MAR2018.

Almost fifty People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels were mobilized in the South China Sea not far from Hainan Island, satellite imagery acquired in late March by Planet Labs confirms. Hainan Island is host to China’s strategic base for military operations in the region.

Centered amongst the warships was China’s only in-service aircraft carrier, Liaoning (CV-16), which had sailed south mid-March from Qingdao with the first Type 901 replenishment ship, Hulun Hu (965), in addition to several other vessels.

Along the way, the Liaoning sailed through the Taiwan Strait, a vivid reminder to the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense of the imbalance of power between the two countries. China considers Taiwan’s status a part of the country’s “core interest”. In January, China announced it had started construction on its third aircraft carrier.

Planet Labs Imagery from 21MAR2018 of the PLAN Yulin Support Base.

By 21 March 2018, Planet imagery captured the arrival of several additional vessels to the Yulin Support Base just north where China berths its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) for the South Sea Fleet. A total of twenty-three vessels were located at the two finger piers and adjacent wharf at the time of capture. Those vessels subsequently departed the following day, leaving both areas empty.

Planet Labs Imagery from 24MAR2018 of the PLAN Yulin Support Base carrier pier.

Two days later on 24 March 2018, we get our first glimpse of China’s CV-16 in the area, berthing at the carrier pier immediately west of the SSBNs. Imagery shows the carrier arriving and departing on the same day, likely joining the group of vessels assembling just south of Hainan.

Planet imagery acquired on 25MAR2018 south of Hainan island.

Planet imagery acquired on 25MAR2018 south of Hainan island.

Partially cloud covered imagery from 25 March (above) captures these vessels sailing in the vicinity of the island—though at the time, the Liaoning was not spotted. The following day, imagery shows the vessels mobilized and sailing uniformly with the carrier in what most media sources are calling a show of force. The Chinese state media however, has not released photos of the exercise.

Planet Labs imagery south of Hainan on 26MAR2018.

Planet Labs imagery south of Hainan on 26MAR2018.

After 26 March, we don’t know much about where these vessels set sail. Imagery acquired on the 27th continued to show the Liaoning staying close to Hainan island. Support ships, notably the Hulun Hu (965), and likely other surface combatants remained at the carrier pier. Unfortunately, imagery of the two finger piers at the eastern section of the Yulin Support Base was not available on the 27th, and imagery of the piers was cloud covered on 28 March. While we were unable to verify CV-16’s location on the 28th and 29th, the carrier’s support ships were still visible at the carrier pier which could suggest the Liaoning remained nearby. 

A press briefing held on Thursday by the Chinese Ministry of Defense provided no further clarity as to the carrier’s whereabouts. The MoD spokesman stated that the deployment was a part of regular scheduled training aimed at enhancing training capabilities. “As to the specific movements of the aircraft carrier the Liaoning, the navy will release information in due course,” Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said without elaborating.

It is not yet known how long PLAN combat drills in the South China Sea will last or if drills will push close to disputed waters.

Bottom Line
China continues to send assets from the North China Sea Fleet to participate in exercises in the South. The deployment demonstrates a focus on PLA readiness and capability, as  it pushes to have multiple carrier groups operational by 2030.