As a US destroyer tests boundaries in the South China Sea, Beijing's aircraft carrier Liaoning has begun 'flight exercises' in the Taiwan Strait.

State-owned media has released new video of armed J-15 combat jets taking off and landing from its only operational aircraft carrier as it makes its way towards Hong Kong to celebrate the anniversary of its independence from the UK.

But Beijing has also chosen this time to reveal 15 engineers died while renovating the ex-Russian Varyag after buying it from Ukraine in 1998.

Now, the aircraft carrier's presence near Taiwan comes shortly after Beijing's outraged response at moves by the destroyer USS Stethem to 'test' the boundaries of China's controversial artificial islands.

Advertisement

POWER POSTURING

The 60,000-ton Liaoning left its home port June 25 along with the destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan for what was described as a weeks-long, transregional training mission.

A report on the defence ministry website said its complement of J-15 jet fighters and helicopters have been conducting flight training along its voyage.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the mission aims to "strengthen co-ordination among the vessels and improve the skills of crew and pilots in different marine regions."

But there's little doubt the footage is intended to emphasise China's new-gained naval power.

The J-15 aircraft are shown carrying combat loads of two medium-range and two short-range air-to-air missiles. Some even appear to be carrying anti-ship missiles under their wings.

And Beijing is no doubt aware such footage will be the subject of intense study by US and Western analysts.

Exactly what weapons China's aircraft carrier fights can haul has been the subject of speculation. Liaoning does not have an advanced catapult, as do US and French aircraft carriers. These can hurl heavy loads into the air.

Advertisement

Instead, Liaoning relies on the 'slingshot' effect of a ski ramp on the carrier's bow to help improve an aircraft's load.

This footage shows the J-15 appears capable of being configured with a flexible weapons suite, despite the weight restrictions.

SHOWING THE FLAG

A highlight of the mission will be the flotilla's port call in Hong Kong to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army garrison's presence in the semi-autonomous Chinese city and former British colony. Though no official date has been announced, the Liaoning is expected to arrive on Friday.

The People's Liberation Army Air Force's new stealth fighter, the J-20, is also rumoured to be making an appearance.

The Liaoning has previously exercised in the South China Sea, although Beijing has been vague on what role it intends it to ultimately play.

China's navy is riding on a high, with the launch of its largest and most powerful destroyer ever - the Type 055 - last week. Its first home-built aircraft carrier was launched in April.

DEADLY RENOVATION

The Global Times outlet of the state-run People's National Daily has today revealed the Soviet-built Liaoning was in very poor condition when work began to reactivate the ship for Chinese service in 2005.

Liaoning's sister ship, the Russian-owned Kuznetsov, has made repeated headlines for its frequent break-downs and the near-constant heavy spume of thick black smoke flowing from its funnel. Western analysts attribute this to poor maintenance.

While China's Liaoning appears much more reliable and clean, it appears to have come at the cost of the lives of 15 engineers.

Deputy chief designer of the Liaoning Sun Guangsu reportedly told China Central Television of Liaoning's poor state.

"It was not easy," said Sun. "When it was delivered [from Ukraine], we went inside, only to find it was in a mess full of empty beer cans and jars. It looked like a shabby hull and we had no documents, no standards about it."

Wang Zhiguo, another designer, reportedly said in an interview with the China Youth Daily that the engineers died from over-work while racing to prepare the aircraft carrier for sea.

"Many of them were close comrades, and sometimes when I think of them, I can still feel that they were with me. It is painful," he said.