NEW DELHI: China has said it its Air Force conducted a series of provocative combat air patrols on Thursday. Not just the disputed South China Sea, but this round of acknowledged exercises also seem designed to send a message to a number of countries in the region, all of whom have disputes with China.
And, Beijing has made no bones about the nature of the exercises. They were clearly termed ‘combat air patrols’ by Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency.
“The PLA Air Force recently conducted a combat air patrol in the South China Sea… A team of various bombers completed the routine patrol,” Xinhua reported military spokesman Shen Jinke as saying.
Any Chinese moves in the South China Sea are generally viewed as sabre-rattling and intimidation. However, the path the exercises took were significant.
The Chinese Air Force planes passed over the Bashi Channel, a key shipping lane that lies between Philippines’s largest idland Luzon and Taiwan. China’s relations with both sides of the Bashi Channel are strained – it has unresolved disputes with Philippines in the South China Sea and claims Taiwan as its own territory.
However, Bashi Channel’s importance stretches beyond territorial disputes. It is one of the most significant bottlenecks for undersea cable networks for telephone and internet connectivity.
The Chinese Air Force also passed over the Miyako Strait, a passage between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako. The Miyako Strait is China’s easiest channel to access Pacific trading and military routes. It is adjacent the Okinawa Island, which hosts 32 US military bases.
The Miyako Strait is not too far north of Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China claims.
Though not many other details of the exercise were released, pictures released by Xinhua showed an assortment of long-range bombers and fighter jets taking part. The centrepiece of the exercise was the H-6K bomber, which carries supersonic land-attack cruise missiles.
The combat patrols come at a time when countries around the Indo-Pacific region are scrambling to build a security understanding with each other, thanks solely due to the perceived threat of China’s rising adventurism and expansionism.