The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and state media have published reports of bombers landing on what looks from the accompanying video to be the South China Sea reef of Woody Island in the Paracels (seen above).
Woody Island is called Yongxing Island by China and Phu Lam Island by Vietnam which also claims sovereignty over it. Taiwan claims it for its own, too. Earlier this year, the US Department of Defense in its National Defense Assessment declared the South China Sea as one of the greatest threats facing US security interests.
This is the first time China has landed or at least acknowledged landing, bombers on disputed territory in those waters.
Woody Island is one of those that China has been building out, including the addition of a 2,700-metre runway that the PLA Navy’s latest generation of fighter jets can take off and land from.
The aircraft in the video is an H-6K, a long-range strategic bomber capable of carrying supersonic cruise missiles and which would have the capacity to attack a US battle carrier group in the event of war. Flying from Woody Island the bomber would also have the range to launch missiles able to hit Alaska and Hawaii and any US base in South-east or East Asia.
China also appears to be building out its military aviation facilities in the Spratly islands to the south of the Paracels for long-range operations. The Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs all seem to be being kitted out to accommodate bombers and other large logistics aircraft such as Y-18 military transport planes and maritime patrol and refuelling aircraft.
H-6Ks based in the Spratlys could reach northern Australia and Guam.
The PLAAF has said China is developing its next-generation stealth strategic bomber, the H-20, that is believed to have a range of at least 10,000 kilometres, sufficient for intercontinental missions. Some reports say a prototype has been spotted, and the goal is to start testing a production model within two years. Also capable of being armed with nuclear weapons, the H-20 could be in operational service in four to five years.