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South China Sea: Chinese Nuclear Capable Bombers Land on Woody Island; By Carlyle A. Thayer

Image Courtesy: NDTV

Article No. 034/2018

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 20, 2018

We are following up on today’s report that the Chinese Air Force landed several bombers on a South China Sea island and carried out simulated strike training on targets at sea. We request your assessment of how important you consider this development and the reasons behind it.

ANSWER: The deployment of H-6K nuclear-capable bombers is part of a steadily escalating pattern of Chinese military behavior. They landed and took off from the airstrip on Woody Island.

What takes place on Woody Island is viewed as a harbinger of what will occur eventually in the Spratlys. China has three 3 km long airstrips Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratlys on. Each of these features is equipped with hangars large enough to accommodate the H-6K bomber.

China’s deployment of the H-6K bombers should be placed in the larger context of China-Taiwan relations and China’s response to increased U.S. naval activity in the South China Sea.

China-Taiwan Relations

Cross-strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan have nose-dived since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as President of Taiwan (Republic of China) in May 2016. General Secretary and President Xi Jinping reportedly is putting pressure on Taiwan.

On 21 March, China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed down the Taiwan Straits. In mid-April, China conducted a massive fleet deployment of forty-eight warships, including the Liaoning, and seventy-six fighters in waters to the east of Hainan island. On 18 April, the People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted live-fire drills off the coast of Fujian province opposite Taiwan.

On 23 April, four U.S. Senators tabled the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act calling for a step up in diplomatic and military engagement with Taiwan. This Act proposes arms sales to Taiwan and possible regular port calls by the U.S. Navy.

On 11 May, China sent warplanes and bombers to fly around Taiwan’s east coast. Increased U.S. Naval Activity

After Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Secretary of Defense James Mattis approved an annual schedule of freedom of navigation operational patrols (FONOPS) in the South China Sea. There have been six FONOPS since this program was approved the most recent in March (see Table 1).

Table 1. U.S. FONOPS Under Trump Administration

In addition, the U.S. Navy also conducts naval presence patrols and continuous bomber presence patrols on and over the South China Sea. For example, in March 2018, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) visited the Philippines and Vietnam. The following month, the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) visited the Philippines. On 25th April two U.S. B-52 bombers based on Guam flew closes to China’s eastern coast Guangdong province

On 9 April, it was reported that China recently installed communications equipment and radar jammers on two of its outposts in the Spratly islands. On 5 May, it was reported that China, installed HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles and YJ-12B anti-ship cruise on three of its Spratly island outposts (Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs). At the same time, China has reasserted its claims to “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea and has warned regional states that they are not permitted to exploit the resources in the South China Sea without China’s prior permission. Vietnam has been forced to stand down oil exploration in the waters near Vanguard Bank. Most recently, China has brought pressure to bear on Russian Vietnam BV oil company to cease operations at the LD-3P well in Block 06.1 (Lan Do or Red Orchid).

In sum, China now appears to be consolidating it military position in the Spratlys now that major construction on its artificial islands is basically complete. China’s major naval bases, however, are at Zhanjiang, Guangdong (HQ South Sea Fleet) and Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island.

The deployment of the H-6K bombers comes at a time when China is under U.S. pressure over trade issues and the Trump Administration is focused on sanctions against Iran and ensuring that a summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim jong-un takes place. There may be an element of opportunism in China’s deployment of the H-6K bombers at this particular time.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. The views expressed in this article are of the author.]

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