A Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force strategic bomber landed for the first time on an island reef in the South China Sea, something that the US Department of Defence said “serves to raise tensions and destabilise the region”.
A spokesman at the Pentagon, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan, called the exercise an act of “China’s continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea”.
In a release on its official website, the Chinese air force said that its bombers, including an H-6K bomber, had recently conducted take-off and landing training on an island reef, though it did not specify exactly which one.
The training, the release said, had elevated the air force’s abilities of “reaching its full territory, assaulting in full time and space, and striking in full scope”.
Wang Minliang, a military expert, was quoted in the release as saying that the bombers’ take-off and landing training was “beneficial to enhance the real combat ability against all kinds of security threats in the sea”.
People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, on Friday posted a video on its Twitter account featuring a series of the H-6K’s training programmes, including take-off, landing and flying.
Bonnie Glaser, a China security expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the location of the H-6K landing was believed to be Woody Island – Yongxing island in Chinese – on which China’s Sansha city government is located.
Beijing established Sansha City, a prefecture-level city of Hainan Province, in 2012 to administer the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha island groups and their surrounding waters, according to China’s state Xinhua news agency.
“I believe this is the first time a bomber has landed in the South China Sea,” Glaser said. “No doubt the H-6K will soon land on an island in Spratly [Islands] since hangers there are built to accommodate bombers.”
In early May, the White House said that it was prepared to take measures against militarisation of the South China Sea, after Beijing had reportedly installed new missiles on outposts in the Spratly Islands – known in China as the Nansha Islands – that are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.
“We’re well aware of China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. We’ve raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this, and there will be near-term and long-term consequences,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters during a press briefing.
US network CNBC reported that the Chinese military installed anti-ship and air-to-air defences on the islands over the last 30 days, citing sources close to US intelligence.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying refused to confirm or deny the deployment.
“China’s peaceful construction in the Spratly archipelago, including the deployment of necessary national defence facilities, is aimed at protecting China’s sovereignty and security,” she said. “Those who don’t intend to violate [this sovereignty] have no reason to worry.”
The US Navy itself frequently sends warships and aircraft carriers to patrol the area.
“China has to realise that they’ve benefited from the free navigation of the sea, and the US Navy has been the guarantor of that,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said. “We will continue to do our operations.”