China’s air force has again flown heavy bombers for a “combat air patrol” over the contested South China sea, part of what it calls “routine” flights in the strategic waterway.
A team of H-6K bombers from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force conducted the drills in recent days and completed the exercises Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted spokesman Shen Jinke as saying.
Shen said the South China Sea exercises were intended to “improve maritime real combat capabilities and forge the forces’ battle methods.”
The air force began training with an aim of “honing their ability to win a potential war” after the Communist Party wrapped up its twice-a-decade congress at the end of October, Shen added.
Xinhua said Thursday that Chinese bombers and warplanes had also conducted training exercises in recent days over the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan from China, and the Miyako Strait near Okinawa Prefecture. The report did not specify the date, but said the H-6K bombers had taken off from an inland airport in northern China.
The Xinhua report quoted a PLA Air Force commander as telling reporters at the key party congress that “planes circling the island of Taiwan would become routine during their training.”
China has stepped up its moves in the South and East China Seas, as well as near Taiwan, as it modernizes its military and seeks to project power farther from its shores.
Beijing is embroiled in a territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyus in China. Taiwan also claims the tiny islets in the East China Sea.
Beijing’s moves near Japanese territory have unnerved Tokyo, which has sought to raise the issue of China’s growing maritime assertiveness with like-minded nations.
China also claims most of the South China Sea, through which $3 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.
Beijing has come under fire for building what a U.S. admiral called a “great wall of sand” in the waters, including seven man-made islands in the Spratly chain, where it has fortified those outposts, constructing military-grade airfields and installing what it says is “defensive” weaponry.
The South China Sea flight came after Japan’s Defense Ministry said Sunday that Beijing had sent bombers and intelligence-gathering aircraft over international airspace through the Miyako Strait.
Japan scrambled fighters in response, though no violation of Japanese airspace was detected.
Four H-6 bombers and two intelligence-gathering aircraft flew a route that took them through the Miyako Strait and back. It was unclear if this was the same flight reported Thursday.
Sunday’s flight was believed to be the first through the passageway since August, when six Chinese bombers flew near Kansai’s Kii Peninsula for the first time.
China, under powerful President Xi Jinping, has embarked on a large-scale campaign of bolstering its military — especially its air force and navy.
In a speech at last month’s party congress, Xi said China was aiming to become a “world-class” force that safeguards the country’s “territorial integrity.”