China’s air force has announced that it recently flew long-range, nuclear-capable aircraft over the South China Sea, including near the flash point Scarborough Shoal, and that the patrols would become a “regular practice.”
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted military spokesman Shen Jinke as saying late Monday that the air force had sent H-6K bombers and other aircraft, including fighter jets, to patrol islands and reefs, less than a week after a U.N.-backed international tribunal rejected Beijing’s historic claims to much of the South China Sea.
“To effectively fulfill its mission, the air force will continue to conduct combat patrols on a regular basis in the South China Sea,” Shen was quoted as saying.
Analysts say the H-6K, which is capable of delivering nuclear-tipped missiles across Asia, was specially designed to counter the U.S. Navy’s carrier battle groups.
Images of the overflight were originally posted to the Chinese Air Force’s official weibo account Friday.
The announcement came amid a three-day meeting in Beijing between U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
On Monday, Wu told Richardson that Beijing “will never give up halfway” the construction of its islands in the South China Sea, and that the Chinese Navy has made “sufficient preparations” to deal with any “sovereignty infringement or provocation.”
Washington has conducted so-called freedom of navigation operations approximately every three months near China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. In November, it flew B-52 strategic bombers over the Spratly chain, where China maintains three military-grade airfields.
The U.S. has also flown A-10C attack planes through international airspace in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, just 230 km west of the Philippines.
Wu was quoted as saying that any attempt to intimidate China by flexing military muscle “will only backfire.”
Beijing will “advance and complete island and reef construction as planned” despite U.S. and international pressure, Wu said, adding that “the level of defense on these islands and reefs depends on the threats facing us.”
Richardson attempted to play down the animosity after last week’s arbitration court ruling, which Beijing has blasted as U.S.- and Japanese-led “meddling.”
“I appreciate the opportunity to visit China and to meet with Adm. Shengli in person — there is no substitute for these types of face-to-face meetings,” Richardson said. “My goal is to forge a relationship built on frankness and cooperation. Given the responsibilities that our navies have, we must work together and speak candidly — when we agree as well as when we have differing opinions.”
Also Monday, a navigation alert issued by China’s Maritime Safety Administration said that the country would conduct military training from Tuesday to Thursday in the waters of the South China Sea near Hainan Island.
According to the administration’s website, military activities were to be conducted and entry of vessels will be prohibited.
A similar alert was issued by the Hainan Maritime Safety Administration earlier this month announcing military exercises from July 5 to July 11, just ahead of the July 12 tribunal ruling.
China conducted naval combat drills on July 8 in waters near the Paracel Islands, northwest of the Spratlys.
James Schoff, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called the recent flight of the nuclear-capable aircraft an “emphatic demonstration” of China’s defiance that was designed to sap the Philippines of confidence that its U.S. ally will uphold its defense treaty obligations.
“I think it is also meant to deter the Philippines and the U.S. from being aggressive in a similar way in the same location,” Schoff said. “Beijing wants the U.S. to think that it can’t possibly match China’s commitment to these claims, and therefore China will do whatever it takes to stay on top of escalation, if anything were to occur.”
Schoff added that while the U.S. was not seeking out conflict, it would continue its own demonstrations in the region, potentially boosting the risk of “unsafe” encounters at sea and in the air.
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of shipping passes annually — even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
China justifies its claims by saying it was the first to have discovered, named and exploited the sea, and outlines its territory using a vague map made up of nine dashes that emerged in the 1940s.
However, the international tribunal sided with the Philippines in ruling China’s claimed historic rights to resources within the so-called nine-dash line had no legal basis.
It also declared that China had violated Manila’s sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone, waters extending 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the Philippine coast.