Chinese fighter jets are carrying out exercises in the South China Sea. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released images late last week that showed J-11BH/BHS fighters in the South China Sea. The jets were armed with missiles and are likely part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s 8th Aviation Division in Hainan Province. The fighters are companied by other aircraft and warships from the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) South Sea Fleet. Though unconfirmed by the PLA, the J-11s are most likely flying from Woody Island (known as Yongxing Island in Chinese) in the Paracels. Woody Island is the location of the sole operational Chinese military airstrip in the South China Sea at the moment though China is thought to be building at least two additional airstrips in the Spratly Islands, where it has built man-made islands.
The aerial exercises come after a heated week in the South China Sea. On Tuesday, October 27, the United States Navy staged its first freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, where China has constructed an artificial island. The U.S. freedom of navigation operation asserted high seas navigational freedoms in those waters and drew an angry response from the Chinese government. Additionally, on Thursday, October 29, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, where the Philippines has filed a case against China over its behavior and claims in the South China Sea, decided that it had jurisdiction to assess the merits of the Philippines’ arguments. That development too drew a strong response from the Chinese government, which declared the Court “null and void,” among other things.
Under pressure to act to in the South China Sea, the PLA has evidently chosen to demonstrate its aerial force projection capabilities in the South China Sea by flying these J-11 fighters from Woody Island. Speaking to the South China Morning Post, retired Chinese General Xu Guangyu, notes that the exercises are ” a signal China sent to the US that it is serious about its claims. This is the minimum level of response China should have, or it will fail the expectation of its people.” The fighters will also renew speculation that China could be looking to eventually enforce a South China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ). In November 2013, Beijing unilaterally declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea, though it has had mixed results in enforcing the ADIZ.
Notably, the J-11 exercises have been heavily featured and discussed in the Chinese press. The PLA’s own outlet, PLA Daily, highlighted images of the J-11s during the exercise on its website, in both English and Chinese. PLA Daily noted that the jets were rehearsing “real air battle tactics.” People’s Daily China shared video of Chinese J-10 fighters executing an aerial refueling maneuver. With aerial refueling, Chinese J-10 and J-11 fighters will be capable of conducting longer range missions in the South China Sea. With the eventual completion of airstrips in the Spratly Islands, at Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs, China could potentially project aerial power across the entirety of the South China Sea.