China has landed heavy bombers on one of its outposts in the South China Sea for the first time, part of an operation intended to provide “experience for Air Force bomber units to use islands as their bases,” according to the Defense Ministry.
China sent several advanced H-6K bombers from an undisclosed air base in southern China for “a simulated strike against sea targets before landing on an island in the South China Sea,” an air force statement published on the Defense Ministry’s website said late Friday.
The statement did not say where the landing drills took place, but experts confirmed that the bombers had conducted the exercises on Woody Island — China’s largest base in the Paracel chain in the South China Sea — and not the airfields it has built on reclaimed land in the disputed Spratly chain further south.
The division involved in the exercise has taken part in earlier patrols over the western Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, the statement added.
It quoted Wang Mingliang, a researcher at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Command College, as saying that the takeoff and landing exercises on its South China Sea islands will bolster the air force’s combat capabilities in terms of dealing with maritime security threats.
Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
It has also built seven man-made islets in the Spratlys, with three — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs — all boasting military-grade airfields, despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further militarize them. In 2016, large jetliners from Chinese airlines carried out landings and takeoffs using airports on the three islets.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for the moves, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and has conducted several so-called freedom of navigation exercises in the area.
Media reports earlier this month said China had secretly installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on the three fortified outposts, a charge Beijing has not denied. That deployment came on the heels of China’s recent installation in the waterway of military jamming equipment, which disrupts communications and radar systems.
A Pentagon spokesman said Saturday that “the United States remains committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
“We have seen these same reports and China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said in an email.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington said on its website Friday that the combat radius of China’s H-6 bombers — nearly 1000 nautical miles (1,850 km) — “means even China’s basic bombers taking off from Woody Island could cover the entire South China Sea.”
The H-6K is an upgraded version of the H-6, which is itself a Chinese-built variation of the 1950s-era Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 Badger.
“Nearly all of the Philippines falls within the radius of the bombers, including Manila and all five Philippine military bases earmarked for development under the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” AMTI said. “An H-6K, with its technical upgrades giving it a combat radius of nearly 1900 nautical miles, would dwarf this radius, putting all of Southeast Asia in range of flights from Woody Island.”
It added that future deployments to the “Big 3” in the Spratlys would bring Singapore and much of Indonesia within range of even China’s lower-end bombers, while the H-6Ks could reach northern Australia — and even U.S. defense facilities on the island of Guam.
As global attention has been fixated on the North Korean nuclear crisis since early last year, China has further fortified its South China Sea islets in a bid to create fully functioning air and naval bases, experts say.
It has completed or is close to completing a number of structures, including administrative buildings, improved hangars, missile shelters, underground storage areas, and large radar and sensor arrays.
Many of its projects in the Spratlys are conducted “following the example of their prior operations in the Paracels,” said Bonnie Glaser, who heads the China Power Project at CSIS.
“So I would expect that eventually H-6K bombers will land on the Spratlys as well. The hardened aircraft shelters on the Big 3 are large enough to accommodate bombers.”
Last month, U.S. Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, the expected nominee to replace outgoing U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, described China’s increased presence in the South China Sea as “a substantial challenge to U.S. military operations in this region.”
“The only thing lacking are the deployed forces. Once occupied, China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania,” Davidson said in written testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
“In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” he added.
Glaser said that the moves by Beijing were part of “their own strategic plan,” and not a bid to send messages to the region or to the United States.
“They plan to gain greater control over the South China Sea and seek to do so in peacetime as well as in wartime,” she said.