Beijing has responded to the US Navy’s ramped-up presence in the South China Sea – an aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson has been scheduled to call at Vietnamese ports next month – with squadrons of advanced fighters including Su-35s and J-20s that will soon start patrolling the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea.
Further incidents involving US and Chinese forces appear inevitable after the China News Service revealed that the US guided-missile destroyer Hopper came within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island) last month, and was intercepted by the Chinese missile destroyer Huangshan. CNS said the US warship steered away from the area after a brief standoff.
Similar encounters in the air are set to become frequent as well, as the People’s Liberation Army has dispatched an unconfirmed number of Su-35 multirole fighters to the sea for joint combat cruise missions.
This is “a pragmatic action for the air force to fulfill its mission in the new era and conduct combat training exercises” above the South China Sea, said a statement by the PLA Air Force on its Weibo social media account.
It is also rumored that several J-20s already in service with the PLAAF will fly south to join Russian-made counterparts to test the 4.5th generation fighter’s operational reliability.
The deployment showed that pilot training for new jets was surprisingly fast, said a Chinese military commentator.
“We just received a group of jets from Russia and inaugurated the J-20 last year, and now we can put them into a real combat mission in the South China Sea,” Xu Guangyu, senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, was quoted as saying by the Global Times.
China reportedly bought 24 Su-35 fighter jets for US$2 billion from Russia in 2015, and Russia completed delivery of the planes by the end of last year.
“The appearance of advanced PLA fighter jets capable of attacking surface combat vessels in this region is sort of a reaction to the provocation by the US,” Xu said.
These aircraft can easily be stationed or serviced on several airstrips and bases created via dredging sand and shoals in the vast sea, after Beijing’s frenzied island-building has created a host of “unsinkable aircraft carriers” in the sea.
Yet some observers have suggested that J-20s are not likely to have a very formidable presence above the South China Sea. Besides the current production bottlenecks, the high temperatures, humidity and brine corrosion there will render the J-20’s stealth coating ineffective after prolonged exposure to such an environment.
They argue that the J-20 is not designed for sea patrols but for air superiority above land held by an enemy.