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BOMBERS AWAY

Beijing’s South China Sea ambitions now include nuclear-ready bombers

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
Chinese H-6Ks fly during a military parade in Beijing.
By Nikhil Sonnad
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This is a video of a nuclear-ready Chinese bomber aircraft landing on an island in the South China Sea. It marks the first time Chinese bombers are known to have landed in the area.

“A division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force recently organized 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’,” the air force said in a statement.

For years, the US has accused China of turning the South China Sea—where a host of tiny islands are separately claimed by several nearby nations—into its own personal military base. China occupies several of these contested islands, and has indeed built bases on many of them. But the Chinese government has traditionally said that any military outposts on the islands it occupies have been no more than “necessary defense facilities.”

That language appears to be changing. The bomber test, for example, shows that China is becoming increasingly explicit about using these bases for offense. The official statement says as much, declaring that the tests are meant to improve China’s ability to conduct strikes “at any time” and “in all directions.” Bombers are, after all, projections of forward power.

That is particularly true of the H-6K aircraft in that video. The H-6K, which came into service in 2009, is capable of carrying out strategic and nuclear strikes. It is China’s first true strategic bomber, a type of craft few of the world’s militaries can call upon. Last week, H-6Ks were used in a drill that had them circling, and intimidating, Taiwan.

The location of the H-6K test is Woody Island, part of the Paracels. In addition to China, the island chain is claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

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