Pacific News Minute: China & Vietnam Step Up Arms Race in the South China Sea

Dec 12, 2016

Xian H6 bomber over China.
Credit Wikipedia Commons

More military activity in the South China Sea: according to Fox News, China sent a long range bomber to patrol the area last week. The Fox report cited two American officials who described the show of force as a message to the incoming Trump administration.

While China's sent aircraft over the South China Sea before, last week's patrol was by far the longest yet. According to the Fox News report, an H6 bomber flew along the edge of the so called nine dash line, which marks the extent of China's disputed claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, and all the islands in it. The H6 is the Chinese version of the old Soviet TU 16 and comes in several versions, some of which can carry nuclear weapons.

The message might've been directed at Hanoi as well as at Washington.  Last week, satellite images provided by an American company called Planet Labs showed vessels dredging a new channel at Ladd Reef, one of Vietnam's outposts in the Spratley Archipelago.  The reef lies beneath the surface at high tide, but houses a light house and a small contingent of troops.

Last month, Vietnam also started work to expand nearby Spratley Island, which it's already built up to roughly 55 acres, large enough for a modest thousand foot runway.  The recent improvement in relations between Beijing and Manila leaves Vietnam as China's most active opponent in the South China Sea.  Vietnam currently controls 21 features in the Spratleys and its installed rocket artillery capable of striking Chinese bases.  In the past three years, Chinese engineers have constructed more than three thousand acres of land atop seven reefs and shoals, complete with ports, barracks and some with ten thousand foot runways, long enough to accommodate H6 bombers.