The People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China landed an H-6K bomber aircraft on a disputed islet in the South China Sea for the first time on Friday, May 18.
According to the PLAAF’s Weibo account and the People’s Daily Online, the H-6K took off and landed on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands disputed between China, Vietnam and Taiwan. China has heavily modified Woody Island in recent years, occupying it as part of a push to cement its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. China’s reclamation activities have built up a harbor and several aircraft hangars, but this marks the first time China has brought a non-transport aircraft to Woody Island’s airstrip.
Chinese bombers including the H-6K conduct takeoff and landing training on an island reef at a southern sea area pic.twitter.com/ASY9tGhfAU
— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) May 18, 2018
Woody Island is often the testing ground for China’s reclamation and militarization activities in other disputed outposts on the Spratlys and Paracels.
Prior to China deploying missile systems such as the HQ-9 and YJ-12B on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in early May, the HQ-9 was spotted on Woody Island, which China calls Yongxing, in February 2017. The stationing of strategic bombers in the Spratlys or Paracels, though, would be a significant escalation, even though China had already prepared the airstrips for bombers and fighter aircraft as early as December 2017.
The H-6K is a variant of the Soviet Tu-16 jet bomber, the latest iteration of which has been modernized to deploy cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. Alongside the missile systems recently deployed to disputed islets and reefs, the bomber would further threaten other claimants in the East and South China Seas, most especially Vietnam, which recently acquiesced to Beijing’s demands to forego an oil drilling project 440 km (273 miles) off the Vietnamese coast.
Vietnam’s underwater oil fields lie within the ‘nine-dash line,’ Beijing’s given name to its territorial claims. Last month, the People’s Liberation Army Navy also conducted live-fire drills involving its aircraft carrier and fighter aircraft in the East China Sea near Taiwan.
In his confirmation hearing for commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson claimed that despite Beijing’s insistence to the contrary, its deployment of air force, navy and rocket force assets to otherwise miniscule islets shows that Beijing is trying to militarize the South China Sea. But he also said it may be too late to reverse this.
“Once occupied, China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania. The PLA will be able to use these bases to challenge U.S. presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants. In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” Davidson said.
China’s People’s Daily Online confirmed the H-6K landed and took off “on an island reef at a southern sea area.”
President Xi Jinping of China, in a 2015 meeting with former President Barack Obama, pledged not to militarize the South China Sea. However, since then, China lost a 2016 legal battle against the Philippines in an international court of arbitration. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled China’s claims in the South China Sea were untenable and violated the exclusive economic zones of its neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
China has since ignored this decision, stepping up its presence on Scarborough Shoal, disputed between it and the Philippines, and insisting on its nine-dash line claim. Some rock formations claimed by China in the East and South China Seas did not meet the threshold required by the tribunal to be considered islands, and thus have exclusive economic zones of their own. In response to this, China has continued its island-building activities.
If China were to assert control over all the territory claimed in the nine-dash line, it would have immense control over shipping in the Asia-Pacific, while other claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines would be confined to their coasts.
The U.S. and certain regional partners such as Australia have conducted freedom of navigation exercises, or FONOPS, inside China’s nine-dash line. China has repeatedly warned pilots conducting overflights that they are violating Chinese airspace. In 2014, China and Vietnam clashed over a Chinese company’s oil rig deployed near the Paracels, escalating tensions as Chinese coast guard vessels rammed Vietnamese fishermen. This prompted anti-China riots in Vietnam that left 21 dead, according to the Guardian.