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Chinese bombers roam free from island fortresses

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CHINA’s Ministry of Defense has declared several aircraft — including the H-6K nuclear-capable strategic bomber — have landed and taken-off from one of its island fortresses in the South China Sea.

The strike aircraft were conducting simulated air attacks against naval formations, the statement says. It’s a clear signal that Beijing considers its ownership of the contested waterways and illegally-reclaimed islands complete and uncontested.

Video released to Chinese state media shows the Xian H-6K bomber from the People Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) 36th Bomber Regiment conducting what is known as ‘touch-and-go’ landing operations on the new airstrip of an unidentified island facility.

Analyst Mike Yeo says an analysis of the video and photographs of the landings reveal the exercise was likely conducted on Woody Island in the disputed Parcels chain — which is not one of its controversial artificial islands.

Woody Island is China’s largest recently fortified bases in the Parcels, and has been the site of previous exercises involving surface-to-air and surface-to-sea missiles, as well as fighter-interceptor jets.

The provocative bomber move comes just weeks after it was revealed Y-8 combat transport aircraft had been spotted on artificial-islands in the Spratly Islands, heavy electronic jamming equipment as well as a variety of cruise missile and surface-to-air missiles.

It marks the end of a project of ‘creeping militarisation’ of the disputed territories. Initially, Beijing insisted the island construction works were for nothing more than maritime safety facilities. Later, it promised the obviously much more extensive facilities would not be militarised.

But it quickly became clearly evident from satellite photographs that its controversial bases were intended to become fully-fledged island fortresses. These have the ability to act as ‘unsinkable aircraft carriers’, with the three fortresses in the Spratly Islands alone each capable of operating up to 70 combat aircraft.

The H-6K bombers reportedly flew some 2000km from their home base to the island airfield, which is roughly half their suspected operational combat radius.

This means that once the bombers become fully operational from airfields in the disputed South China Sea, they would be able to fly over the entire Philippines, as well as most of Southeast Asia.

“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 or US defence facilities on Guam,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) says.

The H-6K is a modernised and newly-constructed version of the Soviet Union’s 1950s-era Tu-16 Badger. It is capable of carrying long-range cruise missiles.

AMTI says activities on Woody Island have become identified as a testing ground for later events on its more controversial artificial island fortresses — including those on the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

“China has built large hangars at all three of its “Big 3” outposts in the Spratlys (Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross Reefs) that can accommodate bombers like the H-6 series (as well as large transport, patrol, and refuelling aircraft),” AMTI writes.

Despite frequent ‘freedom of navigation’ challenges by the United States, China’s activities to arbitrarily assert its control over almost the entire South China Sea has proceeded virtually unopposed.

An international court of arbitration found Beijing’s claims that it holds historical sovereignty over what it classifies as ‘the first island chain’ to be unfounded. China rejected the ruling.

Beijing also has recently asserted that all fishing activities by Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam — the neighbouring nations which all have rights to the South China Sea under international law — must seek approval from it before conducting any fishing or exploration activities in the region.

With bolstered confidence now its control of the ‘first island chain’ is complete, Beijing’s attentions will likely turn to what it defines as the ‘second island chain’. It says the territory bounded by Japan, Guam and Indonesia represent its sphere of ‘primary influence’.

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