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China Tests Its Strategic Air Power Capability: Implications for India

The Chinese Air Force has tested its strategic air power capability for air strikes and bombing against long-distance targets in the counter-terrorism exercise under the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) being held at Matybulak in Kazakhstan between September 9 and 25,2010. About 5,000 troops from China, Kazakhstan,Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan are taking part in the exercise. Uzbekistan is not participating.

2. The contingent of about 1000 Chinese troops participating in the exercise is commanded by Gen.Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Since its birth, the SCO had held seven joint counter-terrorism exercises code-named “Peace Mission”. In the previous exercises, the focus was on the use of ground troops, tanks, missiles and helicopters in counter-terrorism operations. In Peace Mission 2009 held last year, the theme was counter-terrorism operations  to rescue hostages taken by an armed terrorist group in an urban setting which threatened to blow up a chemical plant. The terrorists were projected last year  as armed with  man-portable surface-to-air missiles  and having an unspecified capability for an attack mounted from air. For the first time  since these exercises started. PLA and Russian forces were required last year  to integrate air and air defense operations, including the use of their own surface-to-air missiles.

3.The theme of the Peace Mission 2010 exercise currently being held  is not known, but  it is noticed that the Chinese have  tested during the exercise their capability for mounting long-distance air operations involving the use of bombers and fighter planes. A Xinhua report of September 21 on this part of the exercise stated as follows: “Six warplanes took off from within China and launched long-distance “sudden attacks” in neighboring Kazakhstan in the on-going anti-terror drill of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, said a Chinese General. The simulated cross-border strikes were the first by the Chinese Air Force, according to Major General Meng Guoping, deputy commander of the Chinese military participating in the drill. The six warplanes — four H-6H bombers and two J-10 fighter jets — were split into two missions. They were supported by an air early warning aircraft and were refueled by a flying tanker before they crossed the border into Kazakhstan, said the General. Although the drill venue is within the range of both warplanes, they were refueled in the air to ensure a complete success of their missions, said General Meng. Meng said by carrying out such a move in the war games, the Chinese Air Force is trying to build an integrated air battle group encompassing early warning, command, long-distance bombing, escort and air refueling. “

4. Gen. Ma Xiaotian has reportedly described the exercise as  purely a strategic action against terrorism not directed against any country. The Chinese media has quoted him as saying : “The ongoing exericse never targets or constitutes a threat to any country.”

5. The capability for long-distance air operations of the kind tested by the Chinese would have little use against urban terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (IMET) operating in Chinese-controlled Xinjiang. They would be more relevant for possible use against India in the event of a military conflict. The indications are that the Chinese have tested their capability for strategic air strikes against Indian positions across the Tibetan border by making use of the current SCO counter-terrorism exercises in Kazakhstan. The Indian observer to the exercise, if there is one, should be able to throw more light on this. India is an observer of the SCO.

6. Simultaneously with  strengthening its strategic air power projection capability demonstrated during the current SCO counter-terrorism exercise, China has expanded its civil aviation infrastructure in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. It already has five modern  airports in Lhasa, Qamdo, Nyingchi, Ngari and Xigaze. A new one is under construction in Nagqu. Lhasa is being developed as western China’s air hub.

7.The “China Daily” reported as follows on  August 26: ” The Tibet Airlines is planning to launch routes to Europe within five years and expand its fleet to 50 by 2020. Liu Yanping, general manager of the State-owned airline, told China Daily that the carrier plans to build Lhasa Gonggar Airport, where it is based, “into an aviation center that not only links various parts of the autonomous region but also Tibet and other areas”. He said that the carrier plans to make Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region, western China’s “air hub”.

The carrier is a 280-million-yuan ($41 million) joint venture between Tibet Autonomous Region Investment Co Ltd, holding a 51 percent stake, and Tibet Sanli Investment and Tibet Ruiyi Investment, owning 39 and 10 percent stakes. It will make its maiden flight next August, when three Airbus A319s ordered this month arrive. “We plan to have 20 aircraft by 2015,” Liu said. As the first Tibet-based carrier, the airline plans to have routes serving the autonomous region and key cities across the nation by 2012. Flights to South Asia and Southeast Asia are expected by 2013. “We hope to have direct routes to European nations in 2015 or 2016,” said Liu, who has worked in the civil aviation industry for 25 years and used to be employed by Air China’s southwestern branch. “We will help relieve long-existing transport capacity pressures in Tibet, said Liu. He added that the problems presented by slack off-season demand “will be resolved with the development of Tibet’s tourism industry”. So far, six airlines operate 16 routes in Tibet, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Air China has a more than 50 percent market share, followed by Sichuan Airlines with 30 percent. The balance is shared between China Southern, China Eastern, Shenzhen Airlines and Hainan Airlines.”

8. The development of the civil aviation infrastructure in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region has been projected as meant to promote domestic and foreign  tourism in the area. The newly-built infrastructure would also place at the disposal of the  Chinese Air Force a capability for tactical and logistic air operations against Indian positions in the event of a military conflict. ( 24-9-10)

( The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and  Associate of the  Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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