The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted a long-range military drill involving Xian H-6K bombers, a Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AWAC) aircraft, a Shaanxi Y-9JB (GX-8) electronic warfare and surveillance plane, as well as Su-30 and J-11 fighter jets near Taiwan and Japan on April 15.
The PLAAF aircraft reportedly passed through the Bashi Channel, a strategically pivotal waterway between the Philippines and the Taiwanese island of Orchid connecting the South China Sea with the western Pacific Ocean. Some also flew through the Miyako Strait, situated between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako in the East China Sea.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD), four PLAAF H-6K bombers and one Y-9JB (GX-8) returned to their base in southern China via the Miyako Strait. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) scrambled fighter jets to intercept the PLANAF aircraft in response; Japanese airspace was reportedly not violated.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense noted in a press statement that the PLAAF aircraft, save the H-6K bombers, which crossed the Miyako Strait, returned from the long-range drill in the Western Pacific to their base via the Bashi Channel, skirting the Taiwan Strait. The ministry statement accused China of “trying to change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait.”
According to an April 15 statement by the spokesperson for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command: “The PLA Eastern Theater Command has recently dispatched its naval and air forces, including ships, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, to cruise around the Taiwan island and conduct necessary training and drills, testing the capability of multi-service integrated joint operations. The operation is a normal arrangement within the annual plan and is entirely the justified and legitimate rights of a sovereign state.”
At the end of last month, PLAAF Shenyang J-11 fighters conducted a provocative flight across the median line in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan last scrambled fighter jets to intercept and escort PLAAF H-6K bombers and escort aircraft conducting a long-range patrol near Taiwan in December 2018.
That constituted the first time since May 2018 that Taiwan had to scramble fighter jets to intercept PLAAF military aircraft in the vicinity of Taiwan.
China in recent years has upped the operational tempo of long-range patrols and air combat exercises around and over the Miyako Strait and the Bashi Channel near Taiwan. “In the event of a conflict with Taiwan or Japan, the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel would be critical chokepoints, the seizure of which could delay third party intervention (e.g., by the United States) and secure the so-called first island chain,” I wrote in May 2018.
Notably, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) dispatched two Xian H-6G maritime strike bombers and one Shaanxi Y-9JB (GX-8) plane through the Miyako Strait on April 1. On March 30, the PLAAF flew four H-6K bombers, one Shaanxi Y-9JB aircraft, one Tupolev Tu-154MD electronic intelligence plane, and at least two fighter jets over the Miyako Strait.