On Thursday May 7th, two B-1B supersonic heavy bombers were reported cruising the skies to the northeast of Taiwan. According to Aircraft Spots, this was the fourth U.S.-led bomber mission in the Indo-Pacific region since the United States Airforce brought B-1 bombers back into rotation at Andersen Airforce base in Guam earlier this month. The previous three missions took place on May 1st, May 4th, and May 6th.
B-1 bombers can carry the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the U.S. Air Force. They were last deployed in the Indo-Pacific region in 2017 on missions to patrol over the East and South China Seas as a means of, “projecting U.S. airpower and resolve to North Korea, China, and Russia” according to Stars and Stripes. The presence of advanced precision B-1 bombers was seen as provocative by officials in Beijing – but received praise from the Taiwan government, who has been accusing China of violating the unofficial maritime border between Chinese and Taiwanese territory in recent months. The Airforce officially announced Friday, May 1 that B-1 bombers will be moved around the Indo-Pacific region periodically to promote “operational unpredictability.” The move represents one piece of an overall revamp of the U.S military’s pacific defence strategy that began in early April when B-52 Stratofortress bombers were pulled from Guam for the first time in 16 years.
An analyst told CNN the Air force was shaking up flight patterns of heavy-load warplanes to keep Washington’s adversaries guessing about, where US firepower will be and when. The deployments of such planes in the Indo-Pacific is expected to be more frequent but for shorter irregular periods and between intermediate staging bases rather than predictably rotating them to familiar bases. The new flexible posture ensures that at all times the Air Force Global Strike Command, or AFGSC, is prepared to, “respond globally with significant mass in 48 hours or less” says Defence News.
So far, groups of four to five U.S. military aircraft have been spotted over the South China Sea at least 15 times since April according to reporting by the CNA. The US Navy also continues to conduct, “freedom of navigation operations’, through the commercial throughway of the South Chinese Sea which services one-third of global shipping, or a total of US$3.37 trillion of worth international trade a year and about 15 million barrels of crude oil per day. Defense Ministry spokesperson, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, responded to the shift in US defense policy in a press release stating, “The Chinese military opposes foreign powers bolstering their naval presence in the South China Sea”. Wu went on to say, “the PLA will remain on high alert, and adamantly safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests, as well as the peace and prosperity of the region.”
The switch-up in US bomber task force routines comes at a time when China has become increasingly aggressive over its self proclaimed territories in the South Chinese Sea and Taiwan. In early March, the PLA sent warplanes over the median line of the Taiwanese straight and reportedly conducted its first night mission in the area. Later in April, China established administrative districts on the disputed Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands off the coast of Vietnam. This drew condemnation from Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines – all who have competing sovereignty claims in the resource-rich region. Lo Chih-cheng, a senior legislator with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, told Reuters that China was showing that its military power had not been affected by the virus and that things had returned to normal. “The other aspect is of course to test whether the combat strength of the U.S. military has been reduced due to the impact of the epidemic,” he said.
The pandemic adds a new dimension of the conflict between the two superpowers who have been at odds since the Trump administration declared a trade war last year. The relationship is made worse by the fact that Trump continues to point the finger at Xi’s regime for mishandling the spread of COVID-19. The excess of firepower currently in the region on behalf of both China and the U.S is an indication that neither country intends to back down their forces during this time of international crisis. Despite both nations condemning increased militarization of the region, neither is taking responsibility for their own role in the conflict playing out in the South China Sea. While it is important for the U.S. to promote seafaring freedom and territorial sovereignty of its allies in the Pacific, the introduction of these bombers inflames an already tense relationship with China. Thus, in compliance with international efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States and China should minimize military deployments in the South China Sea and instead reallocate their resources to diplomacy and disaster relief.