China Conducts Mock South China Sea Bombing Drills Amid U.S. Tensions

Chinese fighter jets and bombers have completed a series of combat readiness exercises in the disputed South China Sea, as Beijing continues to assert its dominance over an area that has become a tense flashpoint in the brewing Sino-U.S. confrontation.

Three of China's five main military regions launched air combat readiness exercises, according to The South China Morning Post citing state media.

Among them was the Southern Theater Command, which oversees Chinese armed forces operating in the South China Sea. State-run China National Radio said Tuesday that Southern Theater Command sent two bombers to an undisclosed location for day and night combat training.

Last month, China's defense ministry said that bombers practiced night take-offs and long-range bombing raids on targets in the South China Sea.

Haike News—a news app operation by the overseas arm of the People's Daily newspaper, which is the official publication of the Chinese Communist Party—reported that Chinese fighter jets also conducted exercises around the Subi Reef, an atoll in the South China Sea that Beijing has expanded into an artificial island with a military base.

The aircraft included a Su-30 fighter and an aerial refueling tanker, Haike News said. The exercises lasted for more than 10 hours and involved mid-air refueling. The state-backed Global Times newspaper said the Su-30 flight set a new record for a single sortie by a Chinese fighter jet.

Global Times explained that the exercise has "significant strategic value to the [People's Liberation Army]'s complete patrol coverage of the entire South China Sea." The newspaper quoted Wang Ying, one of the pilots involved, who said the exercise was not about breaking a record, but rather to increase combat readiness.

The Subi Reef is part of the Spratly Islands, which is controlled by China but claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. China considers the latter a wayward province and has vowed to bring the democratic island under its control either via diplomacy or force.

China's island-building campaign has won Beijing control of the South China Sea regardless of competing claims and U.S. protests. The militarized islands now host an array of weapons and facilities able to host warships, bombers and fighter jets.

The U.S. conducts regular naval and aerial "freedom of navigation" missions to assert its belief that the area consists of international waters, which has in the past led to confrontations between U.S. and Chinese forces.

The video released Tuesday by Haike News showing the most recent aerial exercises also included footage of a Chinese pilot apparently intercepting an unidentified aircraft. "Leave immediately! Otherwise you would be intercepted," the pilot said in the video.

A People's Daily video released Tuesday also said the Eastern and Northern theater commands have deployed aircraft "recently." The video said fighter jets, bombers, a naval reconnaissance aircraft and an early warning aircraft were all deployed for exercises.

The U.S. has continued operations in the area, to Beijing's frustration. According to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative—a Chinese think tank that operates out of Peking University's Institute of Ocean Research—the U.S. sent 67 large reconnaissance planes to the South China Sea in July. This was an increase from 35 in May and 49 in June, the think tank said.

Last month, the U.S. formally rejected most of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. "Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

The announcement prompted an angry response from Beijing. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the U.S. "intentionally stirs up controversy over maritime sovereignty claims, destroys regional peace and stability and is an irresponsible act."

"The U.S. has repeatedly sent large fleets of sophisticated military planes and ships to the South China Sea," he added. "The U.S. is the troublemaker and destroyer of regional peace and stability."

China, South China Sea, bombers, fighters, raids
This photo taken on April 14, 2018 shows a Chinese J-15 fighter jet preparing to land on the Liaoning aircraft carrier during a drill at sea. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty