Beijing deployed J-20 fighter jets in the South China Sea

Map of South China Sea
The map of the South China Sea (Credits: Chang21liu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Author: Riccardo Rossi

Beijing deployed J-20 fighter jets in the South China Sea, confirming its military strategy and geopolitical interests in the region and its will to counter any external military forces in the area.

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China, in the press release from April 12th, 2022, stated that since the beginning of this month, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has deployed in the South China Sea (SCS) a portion of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-20 quanta-generation fighters to date split between two of the PRC’s five military commands, such as the Eastern Theater and Southern Theater.

Over the next few years, President Xi Jinping intends to expand the number of J-20s available to the PLAAF so that the remaining three commands, Western Theater, Central Theater, and Northern Theater, are also equipped with this new aircraft.

 Geopolitical Scenario

With the entry into service in 2017 of the 5th generation J-20 fighter jet, the PRC has equipped itself with a high-performance combat aircraft comparable to the U.S. Lockheed Martin-Boeing F-22 Raptor and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters.

This statement is confirmed by a series of close encounters in March 2022 between U.S. Airforce F-35 jets and PLAAF J-20s in the East China Sea (ECS) airspace, following which U.S. Air Force Pacific Commander Kenneth Wilsbach stated that the U.S. pilots involved in these interceptions were impressed by the manoeuvrability of the Chinese aircraft.

Since the beginning of April 2022, the PRC has been deploying J-20 fighter jets in the South China Sea, assigning them patrol missions in the vicinity of three geo-maritime areas considered by President Xi Jinping to be of high geopolitical value such as the Luzon/Bashi Straits and Malacca. (Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea: a geostrategic necessity?).

There are two main reasons for Beijing to focus its attention on the narrows of Malacca and Luzon.

  1. Luzon and Malacca are the two most crucial entry and exit points of the South China Sea, from which it follows that their mastery allows controlling the main Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), which cross this maritime space, interconnecting the main Chinese ports (Shenzhen, Zhanjiang and Shantou) located in the southern sector of the Chinese coastline, with the maritime trade routes, which cross the Asia-Pacific region, in particular the Malacca route. Regarding the Malacca route, the Xi Jinping presidency considers this sea route a fundamental asset for supplying fossil resources necessary to satisfy part of the civil and industrial energy demand. In support of this observation, it should be remembered that the People’s Republic of China buys crude oil from MENA countries, in particular from Iran, Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan.
  2. Luzon is for Beijing a strait of particular tactical-strategic importance because its possible control would allow direct access to the open Pacific, bypassing the channel of Miyako, located in the East China Sea and part of Japanese territory. The Xi Jinping Presidency, following the attribution of geopolitical importance to the Straits of Malacca and Luzon, has developed a militarisation program for the South China Sea aimed at building artificial military platforms in the archipelagos of Spratly and Paracelsus to increase the operational range of its armed forces for air-naval patrolling missions near the two straits.

 Risk Assessment

President Xi Jinping’s decision to build military artificial islands in the archipelagos of Sprtaly and Paracelsus to supervise the maritime straits of Luzon and Malacca has been evaluated by some countries in the region, having economic relations with Beijing as a strategy compromising geopolitical stability in the Asia-Pacific. In recent times, due to Philippines’concern over Chinese strategy, President Rodrigo Duterte has deepened its military relations with the United States, as occurred with the “Balikatan 2022” exercise. This willingness of Manila to deepen a political-military partnership with Washington could represent for the People’s Republic of China an increased risk for its own foreign direct investments and the infrastructural works carried out in the Philippine archipelago (The U.S.-Philippines military exercise ‘Balikatan 2022″).

In conclusion, it is possible to state that this process of militarisation by Beijing of the archipelagos of Spratly and Paracelsus, on the one hand, responds to the need to protect the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC). On the other hand, it generates geopolitical instability in the region that could question Chinese companies’ economic and commercial penetration capabilities in the Asia-Pacific area.

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