The Chinese air force has landed long-range bombers for the first time on an airport in the South China Sea, a state newspaper said Saturday, in a move likely to further fuel concerns about Beijing's expansive claims over the disputed region.
The China Daily newspaper reported that the People's Liberation Army Air Force conducted takeoff and landing training with the H-6K bomber in the South China Sea.
China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes in the South China Sea over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves.
A statement from the Defense Ministry late Friday said the exercise was conducted on an island reef, but it did not specify when or where, saying only that it took place recently at a "southern sea area." It involved several H-6Ks taking off from an air base then making a simulated strike against sea targets before landing, the ministry said.
Wang Mingliang, a military expert, was quoted in the statement as saying that the takeoff and landing exercises will help the air force improve its "real combat ability against all kinds of marine security threats."
The Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, using Chinese social media posts, identified the location of the exercise as Woody Island, China's largest base in the Paracel Islands.