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The South China Sea Always Has PLAN Warships

May 20, 2018

A 30mm cannon of the frigate Jingmen. Via China Military Online.

In keeping with its monthly schedule of naval demonstrations, the Chinese military’s official news website published photos from a recent training exercise in the contentious South China Sea. The event involved the guided missile frigate Jingmen (Hull 506) at an undisclosed location. According to the PLA this was part of “a live-fire training exercise in waters of the South China Sea in early May.”

The activities of the Jingmen subscribed to a familiar pattern where the PLAN sends flotillas that conduct limited war games. These usually involve discharging onboard weapons and various crew oriented drills.

Based on the photos of the Jingmen’s recent trip, the ship fired on mock targets with its 76mm main gun and short-range cannon. The crew also donned protective gear as part of a mock CBRN simulation. It wasn’t revealed if the Jingmen sailed alone or was accompanied by another ship. The scale of PLAN drills in the South China Sea can vary depending on the occasion. In January, for example, a convoy of Type 71 transports may have practiced approaching a shoreline to conduct an amphibious landing.

The past month has seen troubling new developments in the South China Sea. Barely two weeks after PLAAF bombers and fighters staged a simulated assault on Taiwan under the guise of “island patrols” in late April, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) published evidence that China had fortified its artificial islands in the Spratlys with radars, SAMs, and even anti-ship cruise missiles.

Then came the worrisome confirmation of an H-6K deployment on Woody Island in the Paracels on May 18. The presence of the modified bomber first came to light via an ambiguous update from Chinese state media and it was then corroborated by analysis of commercial satellite imagery. The presence of H-6K’s in airbases outside mainland China is a sure sign these are being readied for possible conflict scenarios. The H-6K, which is a recently modified variant of the Soviet Tu-16 that Chinese state-owned factories used to manufacture, is far from a “defensive” aircraft type.

H-6K’s are designed to carry anywhere from a handful to several air-launched cruise missiles for neutralizing surface vessels or strategic targets inland. The possibility of these bombers appearing in the Spratlys means they can threaten either claimant states such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam or any approaching naval force.

As if the ongoing militarization of the South China Sea weren’t ominous enough the PLA published news about its first domestically built aircraft carrier’s recent sea trials. According to the PLA, the prized vessel–whose design resembles the Liaoning–spent six days (from May 13 to 18) in the Yellow Sea without its full complement of aircraft and crew. This happened less than a month after the Liaoning and its escorts sailed between the Philippines and Taiwan and then traced a counter-clockwise course around the latter in what looked like a drill for a blockade.

The Chinese navy’s crowded schedule may prove hard to keep track of but at least three specific goals are always being pursued by these myriad exercises and war games. First, to intimidate Taiwan by practicing an attack on the island Beijing considers a rogue province. Second, to consolidate the PLAN’s grip on the South China Sea and deter foreign navies from entering its waters. Third, to familiarize the crews of both aircraft and ships with operations for breaking out beyond the “first island chain.”

In summation, the PLA’s different branches are preparing themselves for actual combat in the Asia-Pacific.

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