China’s air force held live-fire drills and sent more fighter jets to its base on disputed Woody Island in the South China Sea last week, as the US Navy steps up drills and freedom of navigation operations in the region.
The People’s Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command conducted the drills on Wednesday and Thursday last week, with more than 3,000 missiles fired at moving targets at sea, state-run China National Radio reported on Sunday. It did not say where in the South China Sea the exercises were held.
Photos from the drills posted on state broadcaster CCTV’s website showed they involved JH-7 bombers and J-11B fighter jets.
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It came after Washington last week formally rejected most of Beijing’s expansive maritime claims in the strategic, resource-rich South China Sea, through which one-third of global shipping passes, and parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The tougher US line has worsened tensions between the two superpowers and Chinese military experts say it could push the PLA to conduct more frequent drills in the region.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the exercises were aimed at sending a warning to the US Navy over its recent patrols in the area, as the bombers were designed to attack warships at sea.
“China has also developed another bomber, the J-16, which is more powerful than the JH-7,” Song said, adding that he expected the PLA to send more advanced fighter jets to the region for drills.
“Large-scale naval drills in the South China Sea … will become a regular activity as tensions escalate between China and the US.”
Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, noted that naval drills in the South China Sea and high-altitude operations were a key part of the PLA’s combat-readiness training.
State media reports on the Chinese drills followed the US Navy on Friday saying that two of its aircraft carrier strike groups, led by the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, had conducted dual exercises in the South China Sea to boost their combat readiness – for the second time in two weeks.
The last time the US Navy had two aircraft carriers operating together in the region was nearly six years ago.
Meanwhile, recent satellite images show that the PLA has deployed at least four J-11Bs to Woody Island, in the Paracels chain, Forbes reported on Friday.
The fighter jets can be seen on an airstrip on the island, which China calls Yongxing. The J-11B is broadly equivalent to the F-15 Eagle used by the US Air Force.
China’s air force conducted a similar live-fire drill involving its JH-7 bombers in the South China Sea in 2016, after the US supported a ruling in favour of the Philippines by an international tribunal at The Hague. The ruling, which Beijing has refused to recognise, invalidated China’s claims to the waters based on the so-called nine-dash-line that appears on official Chinese maps and encircles much of the South China Sea.
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