A flotilla led by China's first aircraft carrier has set out from the port city of Qingdao for what the military called "a routine training mission," the country's Defense Ministry said after a report emerged that the vessel would also make an unprecedented port call to Hong Kong early next month.
On June 25, the ministry said that the flotilla, led by the Liaoning carrier, includes the destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan, the frigate Yantai, and a squadron of J-15 fighter jets and helicopters.
It said the training mission, "like previous ones, is expected to strengthen coordination among the vessels and improve the skills of crews and pilots."
On June 23rd, the South China Morning Post, citing unidentified sources, said the Liaoning -- a refitted former Soviet-era vessel that China acquired from Ukraine in 1998 -- will visit Hong Kong early next month for the 20th anniversary of its handover to Chinese rule from Britain.
"The People's Liberation Army is to make its most visible appearance in Hong Kong in 20 years, marking the handover anniversary with an unprecedented port call by its first aircraft carrier," the report said.
It said the port call will follow President Xi Jinping's first trip to the former British colony since he became leader in 2013. Xi is scheduled to visit Hong Kong between June 29th and July 1st, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daly reported that upon its arrival, the Liaoning may be open to the city's residents for the first time.
While US warships, including aircraft carriers, have been known to make port calls in Hong Kong, such symbolic displays of military might by the Chinese Navy are a rarity.
Experts said the visit was likely part of moves by Beijing to help bolster patriotism in the Chinese enclave, especially among younger Hong Kongers who experienced the pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution" in 2014 and ensuing battle between activists and members of the pro- China establishment.
Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Xi's decision to visit "shows that he will not be deterred by the prospects of protests."
"He is a very seasoned political leader and is not so easily intimidated," Zhang said.
As for the Liaoning's expected visit, Zhang said he believed this would mainly be used to boost patriotism in Hong Kong.
"Beijing is aware that some Hong Kongers do not want to embrace their Chinese identity," Zhang said. "Many surveys have shown that this is particularly a problem among the younger people ... such as the 20-30 age group.
Zhang said that Beijing has employed a number of measures in recent years "to try to shape the identities of Hong Kong people."
"In that context," he added, the visit by the "Liaoning could offer many ordinary Hong Kong people a chance to witness China's achievements, thereby enhancing their (sense of) Chinese identity."
The Liaoning carried out its first training drills in the Western Pacific last December, when it cruised into the waterway between Okinawa and Miyakojima Island.
The new carrier and exercises are seen as part of the Chinese Navy's effort to expand its operational reach as it punches further into the Pacific Ocean.
China's growing military presence in the region, especially in the disputed South and East China seas, has fueled concern in the United States and Japan.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, where it has built up and militarized a string of man-made islands. In the East China Sea, Beijing is involved in a territorial dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are known in China as the Diaoyus.