PLA Air Force holds fresh patrols in South China Sea as it seeks to ‘normalise’ stepped-up surveillance
China’s air force conducted a second combat air patrol in the South China Sea in less than a month as it continues to normalise military drills in the contested waters, the PLA said on Saturday.
The People’s Liberation Army sent H-6K bombers and Su-30 fighter jets, along with several other aircraft to patrol the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, air force spokesman Shen Jinke said.
The air force was “increasing response capabilities to all kinds of security threats and safeguarding national sovereignty, security and maritime interests,” Shen said. During the mission, the aircrafts carried out tasks including scouting and air combat patrols, he said.
This is at least the second such patrol reported since the PLA released pictures of an H-6K flying over the disputed Scarborough Shoal late last month.
Beijing aimed to cement its control over the airspace of the South China Sea by making patrols in the region more regular, military observers said.
The nuclear-capable H-6K bomber was one of the biggest aircraft in the PLA air force with a firing range of 1500km, covering the entire South China Sea, Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military analyst, said.
The Su-30 fighter jet, which escorted the H-6K, conducted two air-to-air refuellings during the mission, according to the air force.
Such aerial refuellings extend the reach of air force, retired colonel Yue Gang said.
The recent patrols showed the air force was undergoing a shift in its capabilities. “The air force has to be able to actively defend and conduct attacks at the same. It has to offer protection to the naval force in times of war,” Yue said.
Macau-based military analyst Anthony Wong said the increase in patrols could be a precursor to China establishing an air defence identification zone over the South China Sea.
Tensions over the disputed waters have risen since the Permanent Court of Arbitration in
The Hague rejected Beijing’s historical claims over the waters last month, a ruling China refused to recognise.
The air patrol was conducted after China and the US concluded a major maritime exercise around Hawaii and southern California on Friday.
The US-led Rim of the Pacific 2016 (Rimpac), the world’s largest international maritime exercise, involved more than 40 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel from 26 nations.
China’s participation in the drills, which was largely limited to maritime rescue operations, showed the two nations were maintaining cooperation despite the rise in tensions over the South China Sea, Yue said.
“It was also an important occasion for frontline commanders of both navies to work with each other, as such personal interaction is much more useful than data analysis,” he said.