China has deployed advanced fighter jets to the South China Sea for the first time on public record, Japan Times reported.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force announced the operation online Wednesday and released a video of Russian-built Su-35s flying over the contested waterway.
The announcement did not indicate when the exercise took place or how many of the single-seat, twin-engine, highly maneuverable aircraft were involved. It claimed the fighter jets were conducting “joint combat patrol” exercises to enhance the air force’s long-range operational capability, although it was not clear what made them joint.
The move is thought to be a response to continued U.S. “freedom of navigation” operations in the region. The South China Sea has crucial shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and potential oil, gas and other mineral deposits.
China claims control of nearly all the South China Sea, and has carried out extensive land reclamation work on many of the islands and reefs it claims, equipping some with air strips and military installations, including its man-made islands in the Spratly Island chain. But the U.S. has maintained the right of all countries to sail through or overfly what it considers to be international waters.
Last month, China responded aggressively to a U.S. freedom of navigation operation near the Scarborough Shoal, a territory disputed by China and the Philippines.
A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is expected to make a port visit to Vietnam in March, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday. It would be the first such visit in the postwar era.
Under President Trump, the Navy has increased the number of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The region continues to be a source of tension in relations between Washington and Beijing.