China’s air force has held another round of drills in the disputed South China Sea and the Western Pacific after passing though Japan’s southern islands, the air force said on Sunday, calling such exercises the best preparation for war.
China is in the midst of an ambitious military modernization program overseen by President Xi Jinping with a heavy focus on its air force and navy, from building stealth fighters to adding aircraft carriers.
China insists it has no hostile intent, but its sabre-rattling in the busy South China Sea waterway, and around Taiwan, has touched a nerve in the region and in Washington.
In a statement, the air force said H-6K bombers and Su-30 and Su-35 fighters, among other aircraft, carried out combat patrols over the South China Sea and exercises in the Western Pacific after passing over the Miyako Strait, which lies between two southern Japanese islands.
It did not say when the exercises took place nor specify the parts of the South China Sea or the Western Pacific.
In a “freedom of navigation” operation on Friday, a U.S. Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island China has built in the South China Sea, provoking condemnation from China, which claims most of the strategic waterway.
Sending Su-35 fighters over the South China Sea aims to help increase the air force’s ability to fight far out at sea, the air force said in the statement on its microblog.
Flying across the Miyako Strait, which also sits to the northeast of the self-ruled island of Taiwan that China claims as its own, accorded with international law and practice, it added.
“Air Force exercises are rehearsals for future wars and are the most direct preparation for combat,” it said.
The USS Mustin American destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands on Friday, prompting an angry statement from Beijing claiming that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and accusing the United States of “harming regional peace and stability” with its patrols.
“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” U.S. Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Cdr. Nicole Schwegman stated on Friday.
The Chinese Defense Ministry claimed that USS Mustin was “warned off” by two Chinese frigates as it approached.
“What the US is doing will damage the military-to-military relations and atmosphere. It could easily cause misjudgments and accidents at air or sea. This is a serious political and military provocation to China and the Chinese military is firmly objecting to this,” said Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang.
“China holds indisputable sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea,” Ren insisted. “By repeatedly sending military ships into these areas without authorization, the US has seriously harmed Chinese sovereignty and security, violated basic rules of international relations, and harmed regional peace and stability.”
The Chinese Defense Ministry announced Friday it will conduct combat drills in the South China Sea in the near future, possibly including the nation’s only operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The exercises were described as a routine part of the PLA Navy’s annual plan to “test and improve the troops’ training level and comprehensively enhance the capability to win.”
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