- Chinese fighter and bomber aircraft carried out live-fire drills in the South China Sea this weekend, state media said.
- The exercises come days after US bombers flew through the area with Japanese fighter jets – one of several recent overflights by US planes.
- Activity over the South China Sea has increased amid heightened tension between China and the US.
A few days after multiple US bomber flights over the disputed waters of the South China Sea, fighters and bombers from the Chinese military carried out live-fire exercises over the same area – the latest round of drills in a period of increasing tension between the two countries.
Aircraft from the Southern Theatre command of the People’s Liberation naval air force conducted “live fire shooting drills” at a sea range in the South China Sea, according to the People’s Daily official newspaper, which released photos from a broadcast by state-run CCTV.
The brief report by CCTV stated that dozens of fighter jets and bombers performed the drills to test pilots’ assault, penetration, and precision-strike abilities during operations at sea, according to The Japan Times.
Those exercises came days after US aircraft carried out several overflights through the area.
On Sunday and Tuesday, a single US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber flew over the South China Sea in what US Pacific Air Forces described as part of the US’s ongoing continuous bomber presence operations.
“US Indo-Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) operations have been ongoing since March 2004,” PACAF told Business Insider, saying that recent missions were “consistent with international law and United States’s long-standing and well-known freedom of navigation policies.”
On Wednesday, a B-52H heavy long-range bomber based in Guam met Japanese Air Self-Defence Force fighter jets over the East China Sea and Sea of Japan for what Pacific Air Command called “a routine training mission.” The B-52 carried out drills with 12 Koku Jieitai F-15 fighters and four F-2 fighters before returning home.
The US sent B-52s over the disputed waters of the East and South China Seas four times in August, and the increased activity in the skies there comes amid a period of heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Asked about the overflights on Wednesday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis described them as normal and pointed to Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea – where Chinese forces have constructed artificial islands and equipped them with military facilities and hardware – as setting the stage for tensions.
“That just goes on. If it was 20 years ago and had they not militarised those features there it would have been just another bomber on its way to Diego Garcia or wherever,” Mattis said, referring to a US base in the Indian Ocean.
“So there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it,” he added.
Beijing has made expansive claims over the South China Sea, through which some $US5 trillion in global trade passes annually, clashing with several other countries that claim territory there. China has also set up an air-defence identification zone and claims uninhabited islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea.
On Thursday, China condemned the recent US overflights.
“As for the provocative action taken by the US military aircraft, we are firmly against it and we will take all necessary means to safeguard our rights and interests,” Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said.
In recent days, the US has also sanctionedChina’s Equipment Development Department and its director, Li Shangfu, for buying Russian Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and Russia’s S-400 air-defence missile system this year.
The sanctions are part of a US effort to punish Russia for its actions abroad, and US officials said Moscow was the “ultimate target” of sanctions on Chinese entities. The sanctions did come amid a broader trade dispute between Washington and Beijing, however.
The US also moved ahead with the sale of $US330 million in spare parts and other support for Taiwan’s US-made F-16 fighter jets and other military aircraft.
China has called for the sanctions to be revoked, summoning the US ambassador and defence attache to issue a protest.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province, also demanded the arms deal with that country be cancelled, warning of “severe damage” to US-China relations.
China also denied a request for a port call in Hong Kong by US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in October. The last time China denied such a request was in 2016, during a period of increased tension over the South China Sea.
Asked on Wednesday about recent events, Mattis said he didn’t think there had been a “fundamental shift in anything.”
“We’re just going through one of those periodic points where we’ve got to learn to manage our differences,” he said.
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