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Chinese air force practices bombing Guam to deter U.S. use of force on DPRK: expert

By Bonji Ohara, senior research fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation


On Nov. 19, four H-6 bombers, one Tu-154 electronic intelligence aircraft, and one Y-8 electronic warfare aircraft flew back and forth over international waters in the Miyako Strait between the main island of Okinawa and Miyakojima.


While the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled its fighters, there was no intrusion into Japanese airspace. This was the first time in a while for Chinese military planes to fly over the Miyako Strait.


In FY16, Chinese military aircraft flew over the Miyako Strait 18 times. This number has dropped significantly in 2017, and none was observed between April and June.


Subsequently, flights resumed in August on four occasions. Six bombers were spotted to fly over the Miyako Strait toward the Kii Peninsula on Aug. 24. The latest incident was the first since the one in late August. The act of flying bombers in itself constitutes military pressure on the neighboring countries.


The H-6 bomber is not a stealth aircraft like the U.S.’s B-1B bomber. However, it is said to have a flight range of 8,000 kilometers and is capable of operating within a radius of 3,500 kilometers. Since this aircraft is capable of carrying DF-10 cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers, theoretically, the H-6’s strike range is up to 6,000 kilometers. For this reason, the H-6K bomber is regarded by China to be a weapon for overpowering the U.S. bases in Guam.


When the H-6K bombers fly over the vicinity of Taiwan, this is, of course, meant to apply military pressure on Taiwan to warn against its seeking independence. However, passing through the east side of Taiwan to go into the West Pacific seems to have a different purpose.


On Nov. 1, it was reported that Chinese bombers practiced attacking Guam. These exercises were said to aim at counteracting U.S. military actions in the South China Sea, but they could also be seen as deterrence against the U.S. using force on North Korea.


This is because in the event of a major U.S. air strike on North Korea, this would be undertaken by B-1B bombers and other aircraft from the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.


North Korea fears air strikes by the B-1B bombers which can fly at high speed at a low altitude. Furthermore, there is a huge stockpile of bombs, including bunker busters, in Guam.


China’s applying pressure on Guam would seem to be an effort to support and help North Korea.


However, China might have also become seriously anxious about the increased possibility of the U.S.’s use of force precisely because it has not been able to improve relations with the DPRK. China is averse to major changes in the security environment in its periphery, so it is also possible that it is attempting to make its military presence felt in the region to inhibit U.S. military action.


On Nov. 18, China sent Song Tao, head of the Communist Party of China (CPC) International Liaison Department, to North Korea as special envoy of General Secretary Xi Jinping. By using the CPC International Liaison Department, which is mainly responsible for relations with socialist countries, rather than the government’s foreign ministry, China was trying to emphasize that Song’s mission was to “report on the recent CPC National Congress.”


China had no illusion that North Korea would listen to it and abandon its nuclear weapons meekly. Therefore, it did not want the U.S. and others to have expectations on the special envoy’s visit to the DPRK.


U.S. President Donald Trump was actually hopeful, calling the visit a “big move.” In response to this, China took steps to caution against such expectations, publishing an editorial in the party media saying: “(The special envoy) is not a magician.”


Eventually, the U.S. redesignated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. This could be taken to signal the end of the U.S.’s wait-and-see period. China, which would like to prevent a stronger U.S. military presence, is likely to be kept in a state of anxiety for some time to come. (Slightly abridged)

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