This report examines the key drivers behind China's strategic bomber flights throughout the Asia-Pacific region. It provides a review of all known flights, assesses Chinese official statements, and unofficial expert commentary on flights while leveraging many sources to better understand and gauge regional reactions. The report recommends specific responses for consideration by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. policymakers, and allies and partners.
China's Long-Range Bomber Flights
Drivers and Implications
Published Nov 14, 2018
- Where are these over water flights occurring? What data is available from public sources?
- What are the key issues driving top Chinese leaders to move in the direction of conducting overwater bomber flights in the Asia-Pacific region?
- Is China using these flights for deterrence signaling? If so, what deterrence signaling does China wish to convey, and what channels is China using to send these signals?
- What are the likely implications of China's next-generation H-20 bomber?
- How are regional countries reacting to the flights? What can the United States do to reassure affected allies and partners?
This report examines the key drivers behind China's strategic bomber flights throughout the Asia-Pacific region, assessing Chinese commentary on flights and leveraging a number of sources, including interviews in Taipei and Tokyo, to better understand and gauge regional reactions. The report recommends specific responses for consideration by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. policymakers, as well as allies and partners, offering an in-depth analysis of the key issues driving top Chinese leaders to move in the direction of conducting these overwater bomber flights.
Since March 2015, the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has sent its strategic bomber on long-range overwater flights on at least 38 separate occasions to important areas throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese leaders seek to achieve at least four key objectives with PLAAF bomber flights throughout the region: First, bombers enable Beijing to send a deterrence message or to signal resolve in the conventional military domain to defend its maritime territorial claims. Second, overwater flights significantly enhance realistic training for PLAAF operators. Third, successful bomber flights offer Chinese leaders the opportunity to play up their achievements for domestic consumption, highlighting progress toward the building of "world-class" military forces. And fourth, the increased operational tempo of PLAAF bomber flights around Taiwan appear to be designed, at least in part, to ratchet up pressure against Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, as she has refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, also known as the One China Consensus, since taking office in May 2016.
Implications for the United States
- Given the multiple benefits derived from long-range strategic bomber flights over the Asia-Pacific region, whether in the area of conventional strategic signaling, realistic training opportunities, coercion of Taiwan, or propaganda for domestic consumption, the United States should expect that Beijing will continue to pursue — and even ramp up — these activities for the foreseeable future.
- Chinese president Xi Jinping's intent is to modernize and professionalize the People's Liberation Army into a "world-class" force that aligns with his vision of a stronger, "rejuvenated" China, and this virtually guarantees that the PLAAF will enjoy generous top leadership support in the coming years.
- The U.S. Air Force and other decisionmakers tasked with handling the U.S. response to the bomber flights should not expect to be able to dissuade Chinese leaders from continuing down this path.
- China's next-generation long-range strategic bomber, dubbed the H-20, is expected to enter service in the 2020s and will likely have the range to reliably threaten U.S. targets beyond the Second Island Chain, including Guam and Hawaii. Its likely nuclear capability could have implications for U.S. extended deterrence and for assurance of U.S. allies and partners in the region.
- Going forward, the key objective for the United States and its allies and partners should be to determine how to mitigate any negative effects of Chinese bomber flights, which appear set to become an increasingly regular occurrence in the region.
- The United States could work with allies and partners to devise a strategy for dealing with these flights. One effective means of discouraging increasingly provocative flights could be to conduct joint intercepts with Japan. Another would be to conduct and publicize joint air defense exercises with affected countries to reinforce extended deterrence and signal China that the United States and its allies will not be intimidated. Further improving the air defenses and training of U.S. bases in Asia — especially in Guam — might also be considered. The United States should also work with partners to plan ahead for potentially more provocative flights in the future.
- Washington could consider increasing U.S. Air Force bomber flights in the region to respond to or even match People's Liberation Army Air Force flights. Such flights would demonstrate U.S. commitment to allies and partners.
- There should be increased awareness of PLAAF activities through greater foreign and U.S. government transparency.
- The U.S. government can disclose more information on the strategic and political intentions of Chinese bomber flights over disputed territories and the consequences of such provocative actions, especially noting that military and political coercion of rival claimants violates international norms for resolving territorial disputes. Similarly, increasing U.S. information sharing with allies and partners in the region, publicly or privately, about Chinese bomber flights would serve to reassure allies and likely bolster support for the U.S. presence in the region.