Satellite pictures captured the incredible display where China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed through the disputed waters off Hainan Island.
Images – captured by Planet Labs Inc – revealed the carrier group was taking part in “combat drills” in the South China Sea.
The sea at the centre of a row between Washington and Beijing, with the Communist giant claiming ownership of the disputed waters despite a ruling by the UN.
Military confrontation has been feared in the region, with both sides flexing their naval muscles at one another by sailing warships through the South China Sea.
This latest move by China is one of the largest shows of force in recent memory, with at least 40 warships and submarines flanking Liaoning.
Photos – taken on Monday – show the armada sailing in formation in a long two-by-two line through the South China Sea.
Aircraft were also caught streaming overhead in what analysts believe was more propaganda sent than navy exercise.
The flotilla was headed by submarines and at the heart was the 67,500 ton aircraft carrier – which can carry up to 40 planes and helicopters.
Taiwan also confirmed the carrier group last week traversed the Taiwan Strait, according to the nation’s defence ministry.
Jeffrey Lewis, a security expert at the California-based Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies, said the pictures were the first proof China as deployed its carrier in the war drills.
He said: “It’s an incredible picture. That’s the big news to me. Confirmation that, yes, the carrier participated in the exercise.”
It is unclear where the flotilla was headed, or how long operations will last.
China’s defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Collin Koh, a security expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, described the deployment as unusual due to huge size.
He said: “Judging by the images, it does seem they are keen to show that elements of the South Sea Fleet are able to routinely join up with the carrier strike group from Dalian in the north.
“It does seem they want to show inter-fleet interoperability – something the (Chinese) navy has been quietly working on for some time.”
Chinese naval and coastguard forces have expanded rapidly in recent years and now patrol the vast swathes of the South China Sea.
Tensions rage between the US and China over the disputed sea – with the row dating back to 2013.
China’s demands were overruled in 2016, but promised they would ignore the UN’s ruling and continue to claim ownership of the South China Sea.
Beijing has been packing the region with military forces, building massive airbases on huge manmade sandbars.
And today China backed Putin in the growing row between the West and Russia over the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal.