Several bombers of various types – including the long-range, nuclear strike-capable H-6K – carried out landing and take off drills at an unidentified island airfield after carrying out simulated strike training on targets at sea, the Chinese airforce said.
“A division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) recently organised multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions’,” it said.
The statement said the pilot of the H-6K bomber conducted assault training on a designated sea target and then carried out take-offs and landings at an airport in the area, describing the exercise as preparation for “the west Pacific and the battle for the South China Sea”.
The notice, published on the PLAAF’s Weibo microblogging account, did not provide the precise location of the exercise.
The US has dispatched warships to disputed areas of the South China Sea in a bid to challenge China’s extensive sovereignty claims in the territory, which is also subject to claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. The waters are vital global shipping routes and contain what are believed to be significant oil and natural gas deposits.
“The United States remains committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Pentagon spokesman Lt Col Christopher Logan said.
“We have seen these same reports and China’s continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilise the region.”
Wang Mingliang, a defence expert cited in the Chinese statement, said the takeoff and landing exercises will help the air force “strengthen its combat capability to deal with maritime security threats”.
The move comes weeks after US network CNBC reported that China had installed anti-ship and air-to-air defences on outposts in the Spratly Islands that are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, citing sources close to US intelligence.
Washington warned Beijing would face unspecified “consequences” over its militarisation of the South China Sea, and said it had raised the issue with China.
In an analysis published on its website, CSIS said the location of the runway was believed to be Woody Island, China’s largest base in the Paracel Islands, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has engaged in years of land-reclamation efforts on reefs it controls in the region and built both civilian and military facilities in the contested area.
Chinese military facilities include air bases, radar and communications systems, naval facilities and defensive weaponry including landing strips able to accommodate military planes.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report