China’s deployment of H-6k bombers to disputed land features in the South China Sea has provoked an uproar across the region and beyond while raising considerably the potential for armed conflict.

China’s bombers are capable of conducting nuclear strikes and have an operational range of more than 1,000 nautical miles. This places practically all other claimant states in the contested maritime area within their crosshairs.

In recent months, China has conducted its largest-ever military drills, deployed electronic jamming equipment and positioned HQ-9B surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs) and YJ-12B anti-cruise ballistic missiles (ACBMs) to contested islands in the area. By all indications, China is now only a few steps away from imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) across one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways.

According to an official statement by the People’s Liberation Army air force, “[a] division…recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct takeoff and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all [Chinese] territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.’”

China has yet to confirm the precise area of the reported exercise, but satellite imagery analysis by the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) suggests that Woody Island in the Paracels is the likeliest spot.

As one Chinese military expert put it, the exercises were meant to enhance “real combat ability against all kinds of marine security threats’’ in the South China Sea. Chinese authorities have openly boasted about how the bombers could “reach all [Chinese maritime] territory” and “strike in all directions” against rivals and enemies if necessary.

Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer
Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Nearly the entirety of the Philippines falls within the range of China’s bombers. China may soon deploy the bombers to the Spratlys, some analysts predict. After years of relentless reclamation and militarization, the big three Chinese-occupied reefs, namely Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi, can also accommodate its nuclear-capable bombers and other large fighter aircrafts.

In a statement, Vietnam made it clear that “demands that China stop these activities, cease militarization of the area, and strictly respect Vietnam’s sovereignty over the [Paracel] Islands,” which have been contested by both Beijing and Hanoi.

The Southeast Asian country accused China of “increas[ing] tensions” and “caus[ing] regional instabilities” to the detriment of the overall strategic environment in the South China Sea.

The Pentagon has criticized China’s “continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea”, which it says “only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region.” It has underscored its commitment “to a free and open Indo-Pacific” amid the latest controversies.

The Chinese foreign ministry, for its part, has dismissed the criticisms, maintaining that “South China Sea islands are Chinese territories.” The Asian powerhouse claims “inherent and indisputable” sovereignty over the contested land features it claims in the area.

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The Philippines, which has no direct claims in the Paracels, said it is “closely monitoring developments”, but fell short of directly criticizing China.

Days earlier, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went so far as to suggest that smaller claimants should remain “meek” and “humble” in exchange for China’s “mercy” in the South China Sea. Otherwise, the Filipino president claimed, they risk a “suicidal” war with China.

To up the ante, he has even suggested that China is now his de facto protector. During his meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Boao Forum in April, Duterte claimed the Chinese leader told him: “We will not allow you to be taken out from your office, and we will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs.”

China has neither confirmed nor denied the statement. Last year, Duterte claimed that Xi threatened to declare war if the Philippines insisted on its sovereign claims in the South China Sea. Since his ascent to the presidency, Duterte has placed normalization of bilateral ties with Beijing at the heart of his foreign policy.

He has repeatedly sought to downplay the South China Sea disputes in order to secure rich trade and investment deals with China. However, prominent Filipino voices, including in the Philippine defense establishment, have remained highly critical of China’s latest moves.

Interim Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio warned Duterte that the “[f]ailure to formally protest [China’s deployment of bombers] means the Philippines is acquiescing or consenting to the militarization, and worse, to the claim of China that all the islands, waters and resources within the nine-dashed line form part of Chinese territory.”

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RTX2PML9
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

In recent days, the Philippine military has reiterated its commitment to upholding the country’s sovereign rights in the area.

“Your Armed Forces are always aware and will not renege on our beholden constitutional duties to protect our sovereignty and maintain our territorial areas [in South China Sea],” said Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Edgard Arevalo in late May.

Crucially, by emphasizing their “constitutional duties”, the AFP has made it clear that their primary loyalty is to the Philippines’ territorial integrity rather than any specific leader, namely Duterte.

The AFP has gradually upgraded security cooperation with traditional security partners, particularly America, Australian and Japan, in order to deter China’s maritime assertiveness.

The latest Philippine-US annual Balikatan exercises, held this month, saw the participation of around 8,000 troops and the holding of joint amphibious drills in the South China Sea.

Still, Duterte has appeared to plead for the AFP’s understanding of his position. In early May, during an oath-taking ceremony with the Philippine military, the Filipino president stated, “It’s a play of geopolitics. And I’ll explain to you [military] why my attitude towards China [is like this].”

Over the past two years, he has also sought to win over the armed forces with an expanded package of salaries and benefits. But as China moves ever closer to establishing an exclusion zone in the South China Sea, Duterte is having an increasingly difficult time justifying his China-friendly diplomacy.