China has made no secret of the fact that the artificial islands it has built out of strategically-located reefs and atolls in the South China Sea will be used as “unsinkable aircraft carriers”. Now we are finding out just how long their reach will be.
State-controlled newspapers are saying that aircraft using the airstrips, including the H-6K long-range bomber, will be capable of flying as far as the Malacca Strait, the strategic passage between Singapore and Malaysia that carries much of the world’s shipping.
This comes after a series of recent landing and take-off drills on some of the airstrips by People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes. The PLA confirmed on its Weibo account in mid-May that it had deployed several bombers, including the H-6K, at unidentified airfields in the “southern sea area”, with simulated attacks on targets at sea.
The Global Times quoted Song Zhongping, a military observer, as saying the drills confirmed that the PLA already had the capability to patrol the entire South China Sea, including “every nation that borders the sea, and as far as to the Malacca Strait to the south”.
A heavily redesigned version of an old Soviet model, the H-6K is capable of carrying air-launched cruise missiles for a long-range standoff offensive while using precision-guided munitions.
With a combat radius of 3,500 kilometres, it can fly as far as the Malay Peninsula after taking off from the 2,700-meter runway on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, within the South China Sea. An artificial island of 1,379 acres is being created created around much of the perimeter of the reef lagoon.
It is no surprise that China is focusing so heavily on defense of the Malacca Strait, given that half of the country’s annual trade shipments and 80% of its oil imports are estimated to travel through the waterway. Beijing will remain dependent on the strait, at least until Thailand manages to cut a canal through its southern isthmus that would avoid the long sea journey around to the Indian Ocean.
Undoubtedly the weak underbelly of China’s trade and energy security, the passageway will continue to get close attention from the PLA. Analysts say the message is clear: Beijing is flaunting the long reach of its bombers to warn off anyone who might attempt to seal off the strait or smother its trade and oil flows.