Practise bombing runs by Chinese aircraft on US bases in the Pacific is ‘not in China’s interest’, US officials have warned.
The US Defense Department has criticised recent long-range test flights of Beijing’s H-6K bombers into waters surrounding its Pacific territories of Guam and Hawaii.
The latest flight came just days before US President Donald Trump embarked on his tour of Asia — including China.
Officials told a briefing of journalists travelling with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford that the nuclear capable bombers had been conducting ‘not infrequent’ flights near the strategic mid-Pacific naval and air force facilities.
They had also been observed practising ‘attacks on Guam’.
This has US defence officials taking notice.
The move by Beijing comes as Guam acts as a forward staging post for frequent flights of US strategic bombers over and around South Korea in response to Kim Jong-un’s rising rhetoric in the north.
But the US B-1B ‘Lancer’ bombers, along with advanced radar and antimissile of the THAAD system deployed to South Korea, has Beijing protesting the increased military presence of the US in its regional backyard.
The Military Times reported one of the officials as saying “the PRC is practising attacks on Guam,” adding that its H-6K bombers were regularly conducting flights within range of the US Pacific Territory.
“There are some who try to create a narrative that we are not in the Pacific to stay,” General Dunsford, who was not at the briefing, reportedly said. “Our message is that we are a Pacific power. We intend to stay in the Pacific. Our future economic prosperity is inextricably linked to our security and political relationships in the region.”
But the South China Morning Post reports a regional maritime security expert as saying China was seeking to ‘strengthen its deterrence capability’.
“I believe China is first and foremost keen to intensify measures closer to shore, but pushing the envelope further out into the western Pacific also serves the purpose of enhancing deterrence against the US, with an overall strategic aim of raising the costs of Washington if it chooses to intervene militarily in, say, Taiwan or the East China Sea,” Colin Koh of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore said.
President Trump’s national security adviser McMaster told reporters this week such provocative training missions were counter-productive.
US Air Force B-1B bombers, top, and second from top, are regularly flying out of Guam to be joined by Japanese and South Korean fighter jets over the Korean Peninsula. Picture: South Korean Defense Ministry via AP Source: AP
“I think the United States recognises that any kind of military effort like that will not be in China’s interest,” he said. “I think China recognises that as well.”
He warned US forces had the ability to “deter by denial, which means convincing your enemy, or potential enemy that they cannot accomplish their objectives through the use of military force.”
General Dunford’s staff told journalists that the US Defense Department was worried “about the way things are going”.
They said modern Chinese combat aircraft had been operating a ‘daily’ campaign to impose its claim on the airspace over the entire East and South China Seas — a region commonly referred to as the ‘nine-dash line’..
This was part of a deliberate process by Beijing to ‘normalise’ its presence in the disputed waters, along with its illegal artificial island fortresses.
“I think they will be ready to enforce it when they decide to declare the Nine-Dash line as theirs,” one of the officials told the media gathering.
In 2013, Beijing unilaterally declared claims on territory which overlapped Japanese territory — including the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
This has resulted in a significant increase in provocative air and sea incursions in recent years.
A Chinese H-6K bomber flies during a patrol over the South China Sea. Picture: Xinhua via AP Source: Supplied
Japan has launched some 900 flights of its fighters in the past year alone to intercept incoming Chinese aircraft flying routes intended to challenge Japanese borders.
“We now have, on a daily basis, armed Chinese Flankers and Japanese aircraft coming in proximity of each other”, the officials said.
Such was the increase in aggressive Chinese overflights that Japan had moved two additional fighter squadrons to the island of Okinawa. US forces have been based on the Japanese island since the end of World War II, General Dunford’s staff said.
“It’s very common for [People’s Republic of China] aircraft to intercept US aircraft these days.”
China’s H-6K bombers are a modern version of an old Soviet Cold War era design, the Tu-16 Badger. Introduced to service in 2009, and revealed to the world in 2015, the strategic bombers are capable of flying some 2000km. They carry cruise missiles — armed with either nuclear or conventional warheads — capable of flying a further 1000km on their own.
They’ve recently become a common sight over South China Sea islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. And H-6K bombers based on Beijing’s artificial island fortresses in the region can carry these missiles within range of Australia.
But the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post quotes ‘military expert’ Zhou Chenming as saying the H-6K was too ‘limited’ for conducting long range strike operations.
“It’s absurd for China to deploy H-6Ks to attack Guam because Chinese missiles — or even nuclear weapons — can do the same job without dispatching personnel. Currently, those bombers mainly fly around Taiwan, sending a message to the island’s pro-independence forces,” Zhou reportedly said.
While the US defence briefing stressed there was no perceived threat of an imminent conflict with Beijing, it explained the US had begun the process of re-examining how to fight a Pacific war.
Among the concepts being explored was the rapid and wide dispersal of combat aircraft out of established military bases — such as Guam and those on Japanese territory — to minor airstrips throughout the Pacific region.
This would take a major reorganisation of logistic efforts and capabilities — such as the distribution of fuel, ammunition and spares. Such a ‘scattering’ of valuable advanced combat aircraft was already being practised, officials said.
A woman passes by a TV screen showing a local news program reporting on North Korea’s threats to strike Guam with missiles. China has also been showing increase military interest in the US naval and air force facilities based there. Picture: AP /Ahn Young-Joon Source: AP
The move comes after a modern Chinese oceanographic research vessel spent a month operating in what the South China Morning Post declared to be “in the backyard of the largest US military base in Asia-Pacific waters”.
Its presence mapping waters around the US Pacific naval and air base of Guam have raised fears Beijing may be preparing to increase the activity of its submarines in the area.
The oceanographic ship Kexue was closely watched by US Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft as it loitered in international waters over a seamount southeast of the US territory.
Guam is a forward deployment base for a large range of US warships and support vessels, but also acts as a base for USN fast attack submarines.
Tracking these ships, and analysing their unique sound signatures, would be of great advantage to the People’s Liberation Army.
The ship’s presence, according to Xu Kuidong of the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, “is all about the Second Island Chain.”
This refers to a series of archipelagos that reaching from Japan to the Bonin Islands, to the Mariana Islands, to Guam and Palau.
It represents what Beijing asserts is a ’major constraint’ on its expanding military and political influence in the Pacific Ocean.
“There are many efforts going on to breach the Second Island Chain, this is part of them,” the Post reports Xu as saying.
His published research papers would tell the international community that China meant to “come and play” in this strategic location, the paper says.
“They should get used to the presence of China. This water does not belong to the United States of America, but to the world,” Xu said.
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