China’s Strategic Bomber in the South China Sea

A PLA Air Force H6-K in flight. Image Credit: Government of Japan via Wikimedia Commons (Government of Japan Standard Terms of Use (Ver.2.0) Compatible With CC BY 4.0)

On May 18, China’s People’s Daily released a video showing Chinese bombers including an H-6K landing on Woody Island in the Paracels. The H-6K is a nuclear-capable strategic bomber derived from the Soviet Tu-16. It has an estimated range of more than 3,000 kilometres while carrying a payload of weapons.

“A division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions’,” an official statement said.

The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda notes that the Chinese on Woody Island have already, “deployed J-11 fighters, HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles, YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missiles, and other materiel there.”

Woody Island from the air. Image Credit: Paul Spijkers via Wikimedia Commons

News of the bomber deployment came just weeks after it emerged that China had installed long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on three of the artificial islands it has constructed in the Spratly Islands- Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Mischief Reef.

Panda points out that the Chinese are likely to similarly despatch strategic bombers to these three artificial islands, each of which features a large air strip. (China has built four other artificial islands in the Spratlys.)

China’s efforts to deepen its military presence on these islands achieves both military and political objectives. Militarily, it obviously makes these remote outposts easier to defend. But long-range missiles and bombers also give China the ability to conduct offensive operations in the region. Politically, China is signalling it’s there to stay in the South China Sea.

If it wasn’t clear in the past, it’s clear now that China’s goal is sea control- it intends to turn the South China Sea into its mare nostrum- its very own sea. And there’s little anyone can do about it.

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