The spike in tensions in the strategic waterway comes amid a broader, multi-front rift in China-US ties on issues ranging from Hong Kong and Taiwan to trade, technology transfer and ideological questions.
Xian H-6G and Xian H-6J strategic bombers have staged drills in the South China Sea, with the exercises including nighttime operations, long-range sorties and simulated attack on sea targets, China’s Defence Ministry announced on Thursday.
The drills, described by Defence Ministry spokesperson Col. Ren Guoqiang as “high-intensity training,” were characterized as routine operations aimed at improving naval aviation’s combat readiness. Ren did not specify the drills’ precise location or time.
The naval aviation of the PLA Southern Theater Command recently conducted intensive training in day and night that involved new bomber models including the H-6G and H-6J in the #SouthChinaSea, a defense ministry spokesperson said, adding that it was part of annual drill plans. pic.twitter.com/Toq5hVPADM
— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) July 30, 2020
Commenting on recent drills by US aircraft carrier strike groups in the region, Ren accused America of showing a “hegemonic attitude” and of disturbing regional peace and stability, and emphasized China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the body of water.
The H-6-class of strategic bombers are a veteran workhorse bomber design first developed by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the early 1950s, and license-built by the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation starting in the late 1950s.
The H-6G modification of the bombers can serve as an electronic warfare aircraft, or as aerial targeting support plane for ground-based cruise missiles. The H-6J is a heavily upgraded variant of the bomber is capable of carrying anti-ship cruise missiles, and has a 3,500 km range.
After about a decade of escalating tensions, the US formally rejected “most” of China’s claims in the South China Sea earlier this month, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accusing Beijing of bullying its neighbours and of attempting to build a “maritime empire.” The Chinese Embassy in Washington dismissed the top US diplomat’s claims, and accused Pompeo of trying to “sow discord between China and other littoral countries.”
This week’s drills follow large-scale PLA drills involving JH-7A and J-16B naval strike aircraft earlier this month, with those exercises said to have engaged hypothetical aggressor warships and involved the firing of over 3,000 missiles.
In a related development, last week, amateur radio enthusiasts captured an exchange between a US military aircraft flying near China’s coast and People’s Liberation Naval Air Force planes warning it to “change [its] course immediately” or face interception.
China lays claim to most of the South China Sea, with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan making their own claims to areas of the strategic body of water near their own shores.
The territorial dispute to the key shipping route and fishing and hydrocarbon-rich region dates back to the post-World War II period. In 2002, China and the ASEAN group of nations agreed to begin negotiations on a code of conduct for the region, but talks have dragged on for almost two decades now.
The US entered the fray in 2010, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the South China Sea was a matter of ‘US national interest’, even though the country has no territorial claims to any part of the sea. Washington has since used its naval and air forces to repeatedly challenge Beijing’s territorial claims by carrying out ‘freedom of navigation’ missions through the area.