China Signals Resolve with Bomber Flights Over the South China Sea

An unprecedented display of Chinese strategic systems over disputed territories in the South China Sea reflects China’s efforts to signal its resolve following a diplomatic defeat.

After the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tribunal ruled July 12 in favor of the Philippines’ case, invalidating many of China’s territorial and other claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has sought to demonstrate its military strength in the region. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) long-range strategic bomber, the H-6K, has played a key role in projecting Chinese military power via publicized flights over the South China Sea. Since early May, state-run media have released photos and videos of H-6Ks flying over Fiery Cross Reef, Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef and Livock Reef in the southern Spratly Islands, as well as Woody Island in the northern Paracel Islands. “Combat readiness patrols” by H-6Ks and other PLAAF aircraft “will continue on regularized basis,” a PLAAF spokesman said July 18.

The release of the H-6K footage follows an expanding array of PLA Navy aircraft and systems that have been deployed to land features controlled by China in the South China Sea. In May of last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had deployed artillery to one reclaimed island in the Paracels. By February of this year, the PLA had deployed surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) on Woody Island, although a recent report suggests the SAMs were removed just before the July 12 ruling. In March, the PLA fired an anti-ship cruise missile from a system deployed to Woody Island. PLA Naval Aviation J-11 and JH-7 fighters were also deployed on Woody Island last October as well as in February and April of this year. And in May of this year, J-11 fighters conducted an intercept of U.S. aircraft above the South China Sea that the Department of Defense characterized as “unsafe.”

Despite President Xi’s pledge during his September visit to the United States that China would not “militarize” the Spratly Islands in the southern portion of the South China Sea, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported in February that China may have installed a high-frequency radar system in the Spratlys. The May H-6K video marked the PLAAF’s first public appearance in the disputed area, revealing PLAAF assets in the region in addition to PLA Navy systems and aircraft.

The decision to publicize the PLAAF’s flights in the South China Sea is significant because of the messages being conveyed to both internal and external audiences. To Chinese domestic audiences, the flights project strength and emphasize progress in the PLA’s ongoing military modernization and reform process—an especially significant reminder at a time when Beijing appears weak after losing the tribunal case in The Hague. The flights also transmit a conventional deterrence message to external audiences. The recent trend of H-6K flights extending farther beyond China’s borders raises concerns for the United States and other actors in the Asia-Pacific region about China’s increasing capability to employ long-range bombers to strike targets in the Western Pacific.

Finally, H-6K flights over disputed territories in the South China Sea clearly signal China’s decision to publicize a growing role for the PLAAF and its bombers in maritime overflight operations, following a previous flight in the East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and training activities conducted beyond the First Island Chain in the Western Pacific.

A Crescendo of Media Coverage for the H-6K

The H-6K’s public presence in the South China Sea has increased rapidly since it was first depicted in early May in a Chinese Central Television (CCTV) video profiling Lt. Col. Liu Rui, a bomber regiment chief of staff. Titled “My Story with the God of War” in reference to a nickname for the H-6K, the video included a brief clip filmed from the plane’s window that shows a land feature in a large body of waterChinese netizens soon identified this as Fiery Cross Reef, a Chinese-controlled area in the Spratly Islands and the site of one of three runways China recently built in the contested sea. In the video, Liu says that he thought the H-6K would be boring to fly but eventually realized that the bomber has strategic importance for China, since it could have a “decisive impact on a conflict with just one strike.”

The video depicts Liu Rui as an expert on the H-6K and outlines its use in over-water flights. Liu was the first to fly through the First Island Chain into the Pacific in March 2015, and he participated in last September’s military parade. On July 19, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV reported that Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, had recently visited military facilities in the Southern Theater Command, including an H-6K base, which is likely the 8th Bomber Division to which Liu Rui’s regiment is subordinated.

Media coverage of the H-6K’s second public appearance occurred on July 14, two days after the tribunal ruling, when the PLAAF released several undated photos via Chinese microblogging site Weibo of the H-6K flying over Scarborough Shoal (Xinhua later released a similar photo that appears to be from the same flight).

On July 18, CCTV released another video, which prominently shows an H-6K flying over several landmasses, again identified by sharp-eyed netizens as Mischief Reef and Woody Island, in addition to a land feature we have identified as Livock Reef, though the Chinese press captioned the video as a flight over Scarborough Shoal. In a press conference the same day, the PLAAF spokesman for the first time acknowledged the H-6K’s presence in the South China Sea, saying the Air Force had “conducted a combat readiness patrol above the South China Sea, and the Chinese bombers had patrolled airspace near Chinese islands and reefs, including Huangyan Island,” as Scarborough Shoal is officially known in China. He also announced the patrols would continue.

The 2016 flights come as a series of H-6K training and operational missions over water have occurred farther from China’s borders in recent years, according to open-source reports in Chinese media. Last year, the PLAAF publicized that it conducted four training flights in the Western Pacific, flying twice through the Miyako Strait (near Japan) and twice through the Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and the Philippines)—each time covering a distance of more than 1,000 kilometers beyond the First Island Chain.

According to state-run Chinese media, 2015 marked the first time that the PLAAF crossed the First Island Chain, a milestone the Chinese military values for breaking through a geographic chokehold caused by perceived U.S. containment. Several Naval Aviation H-6 bombers had previously flown through the Miyako Strait on their way to the Pacific during a period of high tension with Japan in September 2013. In addition, the PLAAF made separate flights in 2015 off its coastline to practice long-range precision strikes in September and to show its presence in the East China Sea ADIZ in November. As Dean Cheng, a research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, argued in late 2015, these flights into the Pacific are the clearest demonstration yet of China’s intention to develop and demonstrate the capability to strike Guam and other critical bases that could be used by the United States and its partners in support of combat operations in the Asia-Pacific.

Figure 1. Known Recent PLAAF Bomber Operations Over Water

 

 

 

Date of operation (if unknown, date information was released) Region Aircraft involved Description
March 2015 Western Pacific H-6K Flight through Bashi Channel
May 2015 Western Pacific H-6K Flight through Miyako Strait
August 2015 Western Pacific H-6K, unknown other aircraft Flight through Bashi Channel
September 2015 Unclear, but described as several thousand kilometers from southern China H-6K Practice long-range precision strikes
November 2015 Western Pacific H-6K, unknown other aircraft Flight through Miyako Strait
November 2015 East China Sea H-6K, unknown fighters and early warning aircraft Show presence in East China Sea ADIZ
May 2016 (released) South China Sea H-6K Flight over Fiery Cross Reef
July 2016 (released) South China Sea H-6K Flight over Scarborough Shoal
July 2016 (released) South China Sea H-6K, unknown fighters, early warning aircraft and tankers Flight over Mischief Reef, Woody Island and likely Livock Reef

 

Messaging

Chinese media outlets have portrayed the H-6K as playing an important role in projecting Chinese power in the Pacific, a mission the PLAAF recently began to emphasize under President Xi Jinping. The videos released follow Chinese government efforts to highlight the H-6K’s capabilities and improve the public image of the PLA. During a February 2015 visit to the 36th Bomber Division near Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, President Xi sat in the cockpit of an H-6K, revealing details of the controls and ejection seats for the first time. H-6Ks also flew over Tiananmen Square during last September’s military parade, the first inclusion of the bomber in a military parade since it entered service in 2007.

The videos depict Chinese bombers as protecting Chinese territory and having the capability to strike nearly any target in the Western Pacific. A People’s Daily Online article published after the May video’s release said, “among China’s domestically built bombers, the H-6K features the longest range and maximum bomb capacity. It will play a significant role in safeguarding China both at sea and in the air.” According to one Chinese commentator, the H-6K can fly over the Spratly Islands “for reconnaissance, surveillance and patrols. During wartime, it is capable of dropping bombs and launching missiles.” An early 2015 China Military Online article remarked upon the “strategic importance” of the H-6K, much like Liu did in the recently released video, and highlighted the bomber’s 3,500-kilometer combat radius, a range that could enable Chinese KD-20 land-attack cruise missiles to reach key U.S. military bases in the region. Indeed, Chinese netizens have seized on the H-6K’s range as a point of pride. Following the November 2015 flight through the ADIZ, another military commentator told China’s state-run TV the flight demonstrated that “we are not only able to safeguard the East China Sea ADIZ, but also able to fly beyond the First Island Chain.” Reflecting Chinese government complaints regarding U.S. B-52 bomber flights over the South China Sea last December, the People’s Daily Online article quoted a Chinese military commentator as saying: “The recent appearance of the H-6K over the South China Sea was the consequence of normal training, while U.S. aircraft carriers, bombers and anti-submarine aircraft in the region demonstrate real militarization.”

The increasingly overt coverage of the H-6K flights reflects the Chinese government’s growing desire to show strength above disputed territories. The initial May video—a split-second of a military TV program—was one attempt to soften the public narrative around a flight intended to signal conventional deterrence during a time of tension in the region. But after the recent tribunal ruling, China’s approach became much more overt, evident in the prominent CCTV and media coverage of the photo and video released in July, along with the high-profile visit of the Central Military Commission’s Fan Changlong to the H-6K base the same month.

Implications for a Possible South China Sea ADIZ

The tribunal ruling revived long-standing concerns that China will declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea as another way to enforce its claims. These date to China’s announcement of its East China Sea ADIZ in November 2013, when a Ministry of National Defense spokesman said, “China will establish other air defense identification zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.” The following February, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied Japanese reports that China was preparing such a zone in the South China Sea. In February 2016, another Ministry of National Defense spokesperson said, “whether to establish such a zone and when to establish it depends on the threat that China faces in the air and the level of such kind of threat.” Before the tribunal ruling, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry warned China against establishing an ADIZ, raising the stakes for any Beijing decision.

In light of the tribunal ruling on the Philippines’ arbitration case, multiple reports have indicated China is preparing to do exactly that. Liu Zhenmin, China’s vice foreign minister, said in a July 13 statement that China “has the right” to establish another ADIZ in the South China Sea “if our security is threatened,” and raised the possibility of renewed PLA activity in the region, if not the establishment of a second ADIZ. Beijing’s intentions remain unclear, but Liu’s comments and the air patrol announcement reinforce the importance of the issue to China. Either way, the PLAAF’s optempo in the South China Sea appears to be increasing.

Whether or not a South China Sea ADIZ is established in the future, the H-6K is unlikely to be based on any of the geographical features in the South China Sea, despite Chinese reports recycling U.S. analysis laying out the possibility. Fiery Cross Reef is the only land feature in the area that hosts a runway long enough to accommodate bomber aircraft, which suggests that the PLAAF may have intentionally chosen to film the H-6K flying nearby. However, runway depth, logistics, and maintenance requirements driven by accelerated wear and tear in ocean conditions mean that it would be difficult to deploy the H-6K to the South China Sea on an extended basis, a challenge Taiwan has faced with its aircraft in the Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait.

The H-6K is also unlikely to be used to conduct frequent operations in the South China Sea in the future compared to fighter aircraft. PLA Naval Aviation fighter aircraft have been deployed to Woody Island in what appear to be rotational deployments. Other publicly reported Chinese patrols of the East China Sea ADIZ were conducted using J-10, J-11, JH-7 and Su-27 fighter aircraft, though the Chinese press rarely reports if they belong to its air force or navy. With the July 18 announcement, the PLAAF has now acknowledged that PLAAF fighters and reconnaissance planes operate in the region. The use of airpower from both services suggests that there could be a similar pattern for a potential South China Sea ADIZ, with PLAAF and PLA Naval Aviation fighter aircraft sharing joint responsibility for patrols.

In any case, choosing the PLAAF over PLA Naval Aviation to conduct the first public flights by bomber aircraft over the South China Sea highlights an important conventional deterrence role for the PLAAF in the South China Sea. 

Conclusion

The increasingly frequent appearances of Chinese H-6K bombers over the South China Sea signal China’s military capability in the region and call attention to the PLAAF’s ability to conduct over-water operations. Combined with the six high-profile over-water flights in 2015, more frequent PLAAF activities in the South China Sea this year raise the likelihood of aerial encounters between U.S. and Chinese aircraft, reinforcing the need for enhanced military-to-military relations, clear rules of the road and reliable channels of communication.

The developments also have implications for domestic audiences. China has restricted online discussion and physical protests over the South China Sea in the wake of The Hague’s ruling, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate some flexibility in its diplomatic talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding future activities on uninhabited maritime features in the region. The continued H-6K flights, however, remain a consistent counter-signal: They convey to other claimants in the South China Sea that China will not back down and will preserve the status quo it has created through the reclamation and militarization of its claims in the South China Sea, while appeasing domestic audiences who seek action from Beijing.

As the dispute over the South China Sea intensifies, the H-6K is one more arrow in Beijing’s quiver of tactics to demonstrate resolve and attempt to shape other actors’ behavior in the region.

 

Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Cristina Garafola, Astrid Cevallos and Arthur Chan are project associates at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.