China Lands Nuclear Bombers on Disputed South China Sea Islands in Warning to American Rivals

China has flown nuclear bombers to several of its artificial islands in the South China Sea for the first time in an apparent warning to regional rivals—and the U.S. in particular—that its control over the area is non-negotiable.

A Chinese air force press release said H-6K nuclear-capable bombers had landed on several islands and reefs as part of a training exercise in preparation for the "battle for the South China Sea," Reuters reported.

The statement, issued on Friday, said the exercises were designed to "improve our ability to reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions." The drills involved multiple bombers practicing take-off and landing on the islands, which have been a point of contention between China, the U.S. and several other countries in the region. Pilots also conducted simulated strikes on naval targets.

H-6K strategic bomber aircraft of the Chinese air force fly in formation during a training session on the outskirts of Beijing, July 2, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China—along with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia—has territorial claims in the South China Sea, the waters of which contain rich fishing grounds, vital shipping routes and potential natural resources. China has created a network of artificial military outposts to enforce its claims, despite opposition from neighbors.

American vessels and aircraft have conducted multiple "freedom of navigation" operations to assert the U.S. belief that the South China Sea constitutes international waters. Though China says the islands are purely defensive in nature, their presence gives Beijing de facto control of the South China Sea.

The bases are slowly being militarized by missile, electronic warfare system and aircraft deployments. Some islands have 10,000-foot runways, hangars to house fighter planes, bunkers to store ammunition, troop barracks and deep-water piers for warships.

All the facilities to host nuclear bombers already existed, but the recent exercises is a warning to the U.S. that all of Southeast Asia is now in reach of Beijing's air force, given the H-6K's range of around 3,200 nautical miles.

The statement even described the training as preparation for "the battle for the South China Sea". A pilot of one of the H-6K bombers, Ge Daqing, was quoted as saying that the exercises "sharpens our courage and enhances our capabilities in a real war," the BBC said.

The exact location of the drills was not disclosed. However, a video tweeted by the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper showed a H-6K bomber landing and taking off at what experts told the BBC could be Woody Island—called Yongxing by China. Woody Island is the largest of the Paracel Islands and is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Chinese bombers including the H-6K conduct takeoff and landing training on an island reef at a southern sea area

— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) May 18, 2018

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan told the Associated Press that the U.S. "remains committed to a free and open" Indo-Pacific. "China's continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region," he said.

But China says it is U.S. that is at fault. In March, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "Some outside forces are not happy with the prevailing calm and try to stir up trouble and muddle the waters. Their frequent show of force with fully armed aircraft and naval vessels is the most destabilizing factor in the region."

Regardless of American opposition, China's fortified ocean bases have effectively given it control of the South China Sea. According to the head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command Admiral Philip S. Davidson, "China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States."