China’s air force used a number of its latest bombers and fighters in combat patrols over the South China Sea and drills in the Western Pacific after passing over Japan’s southern islands – its first military exercise in the area in more than three months.
H-6K bombers, Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets were among the aircraft involved in the combat patrols and drills, and they also passed over the Miyako Strait, which lies between two Japanese islands, the air force said in a statement on Sunday. It called the exercises the air force’s best preparation for war.
The air force did not say when or specify where the drills took place.
Beijing’s muscle flexing came days after lawmakers approved changes to the Chinese constitution and confirmed a new government line-up.
During his closing speech to the legislature on Tuesday, President Xi Jinping sent a strong nationalist message, saying China would crush any attempt to “divide the nation” and highlighting Beijing’s hardline stance towards any talk of independence for Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The air force released footage of the drills, as Japan’s defence ministry on Friday confirmed that eight Chinese military aircraft – including six H-6K bombers, a Tu-154 reconnaissance plane and a Yun-8 transport plane – had passed over the Miyako Strait that day.
Zeng Zhiping, a military expert at the Nanchang Institute of Technology in Jiangxi province, said the scale of the exercise was unusual for China’s air force.
“Rather than a fighter jet or two, numerous military aircraft with multiple functions passed over the Miyako Strait before they carried out this mission – this is by no means something that happens regularly,” Zeng said.
The country is in the midst of an ambitious military modernisation programme overseen by Xi, with a heavy focus on its air force and navy, from building stealth fighters to adding aircraft carriers.
Beijing insists it has no hostile intent, but its sabre-rattling in the busy South China Sea, and around Taiwan, has touched a nerve in the region and in Washington.
In a “freedom of navigation” operation on Friday, a US Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island China has built in the South China Sea, provoking condemnation from Beijing, which claims most of the strategic waterway.
Zeng said it was not possible to single out any one trigger for the air force drills, saying there could be a number of political or diplomatic motivations behind such an unusually large mission.
“Given the combination of aircraft carrying out this mission, the PLA Air Force could also be exploring new military strategies,” he said.
The air force said sending Su-35 fighters over the South China Sea helped to increase its ability to fight far out at sea.
Flying across the Miyako Strait, which also sits to the northeast of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, accorded with international law and practice, it said.
“Air force exercises are rehearsals for future wars and are the most direct preparation for combat,” the statement said.
The more exercises China conducted far from its shores the better it would be positioned as “an important force for managing and controlling crises, containing war and winning battles”, it said.
The air force on December 11 sent two Yun-8 transport planes and one Tu-154, its largest reconnaissance aircraft, over the Miyako Strait before conducting an intensive patrol around Taiwan.