Beijing, China—Beijing hit back Monday at allegations it was “militarizing” the South China Sea after landing bombers at an airbase in the contested waters, accusing Washington instead of raising tensions with its own military footprint.
China on Friday for the first time landed several combat aircraft—including the long-range, nuclear strike-capable H-6K—at an island airfield in the sea, triggering international concern.
The move prompted immediate criticism from the US, with a Pentagon spokesman condemning China’s “continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea.”
But China rejected concerns that the deployment had raised tensions in a region home to vital global shipping routes.
“The South China Sea islands are Chinese territories,” foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told a regular briefing.
Lu said moving the bombers into the area was “part of the normal training for the Chinese military,” and that the US “sending its own warships and planes to the region... poses a danger to other countries.”
Friday’s takeoff and landing drills took place on Woody Island, according to Washington think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
The island is home to China’s largest base in the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Hanoi slammed the drills and demanded Beijing “immediately cease” its military moves in the area, the foreign ministry said in a statement to AFP Monday.
The exercises “seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty... raising tensions (and) destabilizing the region,” it said.
Vietnam has long traded barbs with its communist neighbor over competing claims in the sea but tensions have risen in recent weeks.
Earlier this month Hanoi told Beijing to remove military equipment from the Spratly islands after CNBC reported it had installed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles.
Soon after, the Vietnamese unit of Russian oil firm Rosneft said it started drilling in a part of the sea also claimed by China. Beijing responded by asserting its sovereignty over the area.
China claims almost all the South China Sea and has built a string of artificial islands in contested areas since 2013, installing an array of airbases, radar systems, and naval facilities.
The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia have competing partial claims.
The Philippines, which has largely backed off from the sea dispute under President Rodrigo Duterte, said Monday said it was taking “appropriate diplomatic action” over the bomber exercises.
Analysts said China’s latest move is a bold power play to bolster its territorial claims while rivals are divided and the US distracted by North Korea.
The steady buildup of military assets in the waterway—believed to have significant oil and natural gas deposits—allows China to “influence its weaker neighbors in peacetime,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Through the use of a large number of law enforcement ships, for example, it can pressure Vietnam and the Philippines not to unilaterally extract energy in waters that China claims jurisdictional rights,” she said.
“In wartime, China’s military assets on these islands will increase the risk to the US of intervening militarily.”
Despite the rhetoric, experts say little has been done to prevent China from solidifying its vast maritime claims.
Beijing has managed to weaken regional resistance by courting some members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
While US warships have conducted “freedom of navigation” operations near Chinese-claimed features, they have not deterred Beijing.
The bombers were deployed while US President Donald Trump is focused on preparing for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month.
“I think there is an obvious political motivation for the timing,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.
“Because the US is mainly engaged in the North Korea files... there is a window of opportunity where the US reaction is likely to be restrained.”
China’s foreign ministry has repeated denials that the region was being militarized, saying the islands belong to Beijing and the bombers were conducting “normal training.”
The latest exercises were “largely symbolic” and not a significant military development, Graham said.
To deploy from Woody Island, China would have to install logistics infrastructure to operate aircraft, refuel them, store weapons and house crews, he said.
“Just landing an aircraft doesn’t make it an operational space,” Graham said.
It would be more significant if and when China starts flying combat aircraft to the Spratlys, he said, because that would bring northern Australia into missile range.
Nearly a third of global trade passes through the South China Sea and Beijing has bigger commercial and military ambitions for this strategic sea area, said William Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
China could create an air defense identification zone to spot incursions into its claimed sovereign airspace, something it did in the East China Sea in 2013 amid a dispute over the Senkaku islands with Japan, Choong said.
Beijing could also establish a base for nuclear submarines as the deep waters around the Spratlys “provide a good hiding place”, he said.
Despite the looming threat, the international community -- including India, Japan, the US and Australia—has failed to achieve a united front against China’s island-building spree, Choong said.
“Apart from the freedom of navigation missions and the strong rhetoric, the US hasn’t been able to corral together a coalition of the willing, to effectively to get China to stop the militarization of the South China Sea.”