It appears that the Western Pacific US territory of Guam has become a new focal point of the covert yet long-running military rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

It has been reported that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) electronic reconnaissance vessels, including its latest Type 815 spy ships that just entered service in recent years, cruised in international waters surrounding Guam for more than a month this year.

In a separate development, rumor has it that Beijing may be mulling setting up a military base in Guam’s neighbor, the self-governing territory of Micronesia in the southwestern Pacific.

That rumor, though not confirmed, coincided with another piece of hearsay on a military forum that the Pentagon was considering a dramatic pullback from Okinawa by 2020, as the outlying Japanese prefecture is becoming increasingly susceptible to the PLA’s missiles and fighter jets.

Although abandoning Okinawa is a far-fetched hypothesis, as observers point out, Guam and Hawaii should indeed be given more precedence in future deployment given Okinawa’s exposure to Beijing’s military buildup.

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Guam is an outpost for the US military in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo: Google Maps

News began to swirl after the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, told reporters that the PLA’s H-6K strategic bombers had been flying over Guam, an unincorporated US territory, after the China-made attack planes were seen with a higher frequency over Taiwan, and in places as far off as Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Miyako Strait, as well as the Tsushima Strait between South Korea and Hokkaido.

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Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford. Photo: Reuters

However, Dunford didn’t specify when these Chinese bombers began to approach Guam.

With a claimed combat radius of 3,500 kilometers, the H-6K is capable of attacking Guam and targets within its air defense identification zone, a PLA Air Force general told Beijing-based Global Times.

“But if our bombers really want to simulate an attack on Guam, they don’t necessarily have to fly this close to the island, as we have well-rounded strategic cruise missiles with ranges of up to 1,500 kilometers for precise strikes,” the party mouthpiece quoted the general as saying, stressing the PLA’s freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace near Guam.

Observers say the PLA Air Force has bolstered its ocean-going training, with warplanes penetrating the first island chain, a cordon in the east reaching from the islands off the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East to the Malay Peninsula.

Now Chinese warplanes’ high-profile appearance above Guam is proof that the PLA has punctured the containment based on the second island chain, of the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands and Volcano Islands of Japan, in addition to the Mariana Islands and Guam.

The frontline outpost of Guam has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side, as the Pentagon continues to pile up troops and weaponry there, for Washington’s pivot-to-Asia strategy and co-defense with treaty allies.

The island is a natural air-sea base for B-1 and B-2 bombers, F-35 stealth fighters and Los Angeles- and Ohio-class nuclear submarines, among others, and, as a whole, they reportedly represent 70% of the US military’s capacity in the Far East.

Dong Feng-26 missiles are seen on parade. Photo: PLA Daily
Dong Feng-26 missiles are seen on parade. Photo: PLA Daily

Beijing, in response to this Pacific bulwark that’s in the way of its ocean-going ambition to further its national interests, has developed Dong-Feng 26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, nicknamed “Guam killers,” as its first conventionally armed ballistic missiles capable of reaching Guam and the US military installations there. The missiles have been operational since September 2015.

Now that the PLA has demonstrated its reach with H-6K bombers’ flyover of Guam, the Pentagon has more to worry about on top of the powerful Dong-Feng missiles.

Furthermore, there have been reports about H-6Ks being spotted above Hawaii. Analysts say that if that’s true, then these bombers must have received aerial refueling midway.