HONG KONG—Over the weekend, the Chinese military landed a bomber on Woody Island in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where Beijing has a slew of construction projects on unpopulated atolls and rocks it claims as part of its territory.
Beijing is leveraging its position as a broker for a deal between U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, figuring that despite the obvious provocation, Trump will just have to suck it up. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party is issuing new reminders to its neighbors, reminding them who’s the real boss in this part of the world, just in case they didn’t get the point from the war games held in April.
So, one of Beijing’s bombers touches down on Woody. Was there ever any doubt such a thing would happen?
China’s air force had previously landed its fighter jets in the area, but the plane in question this time is the Xian H-6K bomber, a nuclear-capable strategic aircraft known as China’s B-52. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force says its engineers have extended the original aircraft’s flight range. Depending on the payload, the bomber can travel between 3,000 km (1,900 miles) and 6,000 km (3,700 miles) without aerial refueling. With refueling, its range increases to 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles). They’ve extended its visibility range, and made its strikes more accurate.
From Woody Island, the H-6K can easily reach all of China’s neighbors. Taiwan and Vietnam have also made claims of sovereignty over Woody and its surrounding waters, and Woody is less than 1,000 kilometers from Manila, which disputes some of China’s other claims in the waters of the South China Sea.
The Chinese defense ministry has stated that the landing was part of a military exercise that involved simulated air-to-sea strikes, in preparation for “the battle for the South China Sea”—which may be just as ominous as it sounds. Analysts say the main function of the H-6K would likely be to hunt and kill enemy ships in the vast Pacific using its payload of supersonic missiles.
China’s claim over the South China Sea is a constant source of consternation within the region. The Philippines even brought a case against the People’s Republic to The Hague. The tribunal ruled in July 2016 that China had no “historical rights” to the disputed territory, but before the end of that year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who was once the most outspoken among the South China Sea claimants, said that he would “set aside” the ruling and “not impose anything on China.” When Trump offered to mediate the conflict last year, Duterte said that the matter is “better left untouched,” allowing Beijing to continue its construction of military installations and performance of military drills with no substantial opposition.
After the H-6K bomber’s touchdown, Duterte again said that he would not do anything to push the buttons of Beijing: “You know they have the planes... And with their hypersonic, they can reach Manila within seven to 10 minutes.”
Though Duterte faces criticism for kowtowing to China’s President Xi Jinping, his assessment of the great game in the South China Sea is sound. Within East and Southeast Asia, in particular among the nations that claim some part of those waters as their own, there is no nation with the resources to counter China’s encroachment. Major powers on other continents have little reason to enter a skirmish with the Chinese military for desolate rocks, despite the significance of the South China Sea for international trade.
As China continues to entrench itself in these waters, U.S. actions and responses have not evolved. American warships occasionally sail near the disputed islands, sparking rebukes from Chinese officials. After the H-6K landing, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said, “China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region.” Washington has said that Beijing would face “consequences” for its actions. But these are vague threats at best, and from the Chinese Communist Party’s standpoint, American lip service is business as usual, so the the South China Sea takeover barrels ahead as planned.
On three outposts located on the Spratly Islands, south of Woody and even closer to the Philippines, the Chinese military already has installed anti-ship and surface-to-air missile systems to counter unwanted intrusions.
But why land a bomber in the hotly contested region now?
The move is not so much designed to antagonize those whose claims in the South China Sea have fallen flat. Rather, China is gauging how America will react at a time when Beijing appears to be outmaneuvering Washington on several fronts. In trade negotiations, the fight for intellectual-property protection seemingly has been abandoned, tariffs that were slapped on Chinese goods have been suspended, the American president has tweeted about saving Chinese jobs, and what Trump’s negotiators call Chinese “concessions” are actions that Beijing intended to take even before trade-war talks.
More importantly, Trump’s success or failure at the planned summit with Kim Jong Un depends heavily on the guarantees that can be made to Kim by North Korea’s primary sponsor, China. Beijing sees itself as holding the upper hand in matters that America is much more heavily invested in, and is using this as cover while it tightens its grip on the South China Sea.
The Chinese Communist Party is flexing its geopolitical muscle westward, too. Sri Lanka’s government has already signed away control of one of its major ports to China, using a 99-year lease to knock off a chunk of $8 billion worth of debt to Chinese state-owned corporations. Also saddled with massive debt, Burma may eventually have to do the same.
Meanwhile, matters of territorial sovereignty can easily be used to whip up fervent nationalistic sentiment among the Chinese population. This month, a group of tourists from China arrived in Vietnam wearing T-shirts showing a map of their homeland, including the nine-dash line that traces the South China Sea and marks it as part of the People’s Republic. Vietnamese airport officials asked the visitors to change their attire before letting them enter the country. Tasteless as the choice of couture may have been, China is already the victor in those waters.