- Beijing upped the ante in the South China Sea on Friday by releasing footage of its H-6K nuclear-capable bombers landing on artificially made islands in disputed waters – and it sends a clear message about who dominates the region.
- China has taken an increasingly aggressive stance to back up its unilateral, illegal claims to the waters of the South China Sea, through which trillions in international trade pass annually.
- Flying bombers in and out shows China runs the show, and nobody will fight the potential superpower over it because there’s just too much at stake.
Beijing appeared to up the ante in the South China Sea on Friday by releasing footage of its H-6K nuclear-capable bombers landing on artificially made islands in disputed waters – and it sends a clear message that it dominates the region.
China has taken an increasingly aggressive stance to back up its unilateral claims to the waters of the South China Sea, through which trillions in international trade pass annually.
The US frequently challenges China’s maritime claims, which have been ruled illegal under international law; but recent moves from Beijing show that facts in the water have outpaced US determination.
“The Chinese are becoming more confident with the deployment of their capabilities,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider.
China has begun to doubt “the staying power of the US and whether or not the US can really make a difference” in its slow-moving domination of the waters, Glaser said.
In militarizing the South China Sea, Beijing has gone back on past promises and acted directly against international law, the wishes of the US, and the moves of the US Navy.
“The Chinese are becoming clearer, less concerned about their reactions from their neighbours or the US, or, put differently, they think they can manage those,” Glaser said.
Beijing has increasingly bullied and bossed around its neighbours when it comes to the contested waters, recently saying that all South China Sea drilling and fishing activities need to first seek its permission.
Not a strategic deployment – but a strategic message
Though China has built hardened aircraft carriers on its artificial South China Sea islands, the small bases don’t make sense for long-term deployment of nuclear-capable aircraft. Stationing high-value targets like nuclear-capable bombers in the middle of the South China Sea exposes them to US missile fires and isolates them from much of the support infrastructure they’d need to function.
“Simply by being there and having stuff coming and going, they can dominate the region,” Bill Hayton, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific Programme, told Business Insider. He called the announcement of the bombers and other steps toward militarization “a way that China can dominate the region and its natural resources.”
Although the US and China’s neighbours disagree with Beijing’s stance and want the waters to remain free and international, “Nobody is going to shoot at them to start a war with them because who wants to do that,” Hayton said.
Instead, China’s landing nuclear-capable bombers on artificial islands that it said it wouldn’t militarize functions to send a message to its neighbours and to the US: Beijing has, for now, won the battle of the South China Sea, without firing a shot.
Watch video of the H-6Ks in the South China Sea below:
Chinese bombers including the H-6K conduct takeoff and landing training on an island reef at a southern sea area pic.twitter.com/ASY9tGhfAU
— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) May 18, 2018
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