(Recasts, updates throughout with details)

BEIJING, Nov 18 (Reuters) – China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier is on its way to the South China Sea for tests and to take part in exercises, the Chinese navy said on Monday, after sailing through the Taiwan Strait in a mission denounced by Taipei as intimidation.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Sunday a Chinese carrier group led by the ship passed through the sensitive strait with U.S. and Japanese vessels tailing it.

Self-ruled Taiwan, regarded by China as a wayward province, said Beijing was trying to intimidate the island ahead of a presidential election in January.

In a statement, the Chinese Navy said the carrier passed through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday night, going to the South China Sea for “scientific tests and routine drills”.

“The organisation of the trials and drills of the domestic aircraft carrier through the region is a normal arrangement in the construction process of the aircraft carrier,” it said.

“It is not aimed at any specific target and has nothing to do with the current situation.”

The ministry did not elaborate. It made no mention of the carrier being trailed by American and Japanese ships, which Taiwan’s defence ministry had mentioned in its statement.

The South China Sea is a sensitive waterway, disputed all or in part by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.

China’s still-unnamed carrier, the first to be built domestically, began sea trials last year. Chinese military experts have told state media it is not expected to enter service until 2020, once it has been kitted out and armed.

The ship has been undergoing sea trials from it base in the northern port city of Dalian, where it was built. Little is known about China’s carrier programme, which is a state secret.

The government has said the new vessel’s design draws on experiences with its first carrier, the Liaoning, which was bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted in China. (Reporting by Huizhong Wu and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Writing by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Tom Hogue)

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