“In Response to US FONOP, China Flies Advanced Fighter Jets over the South China Sea” by Ian Storey

2018/9, 12 February 2018

According to China’s Ministry of Defence, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has used state-of-the-art SU-35 fighter jets to conduct combat patrols over the South China Sea

Although the report did not provide details of the exact dates, location or size of the patrols, it is the first time that China has publicly acknowledged the operational use of the PLAAF’s SU-35s. In late 2015, Beijing signed a US$2 billion contract with Moscow to purchase 24 SU-35s, Russia’s most advanced air superiority fighter. Fourteen were delivered during 2016-17 and the remaining 10 will be transferred in 2018. China’s acquisition of SU-35s highlights how the strengthening of the Sino-Russian strategic alignment since 2014 has enabled Beijing to further widen the gap in combat capabilities between China’s armed forces and its Southeast Asian counterparts.

The timing of the announcement is significant as it came three weeks after the US Navy conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) at Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. In response to the FONOP, China’s defence ministry had pledged to “intensify its patrols in the air and at sea in order to safeguard the sovereignty and security of the country”. Recently released images show that the military facilities on China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys are nearing completion. In the near future, it is highly likely that China will begin to rotationally deploy fighter aircraft such as the SU-35 to the three islands which host airstrips.

A few days before China’s defence ministry made the SU-35 announcement, ASEAN foreign ministers had held a scheduled meeting in Singapore. A press statement by the Chairman, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, had emphasized the “importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint” by all parties to the dispute which “could further complicate and situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea”. Negotiations between ASEAN and China on a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea are expected to take place in Vietnam in early March. Balakrishnan cautioned that the talks will be complicated and that building trust will be more important than setting “artificial deadlines”.

Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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