Singapore Air Show

In show of force, China flexes its military muscle

 - February 2, 2010, 5:53 PM

“The U.S. wants to be number one, but China doesn’t want to be number two!” That was how Indian academic Deba Mohanty characterized the shifting strategic dynamics, at Monday’s Asia Pacific Security Conference (APSEC) here in Singapore.

At the same time, two reports for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned U.S. policymakers that China’s military has indeed become a force to be reckoned with. One report concluded that “since the reforms of 1998, the Chinese defense industries have undergone a dramatic and successful transformation, surpassing the expectations of even the most forward-leaning analyst.” The other issued the starkest warning yet of the threat to Taiwan’s autonomy posed by China’s deployment of ballistic and cruise missiles. Taiwan’s continued de facto independence hinders China’s emergence as a regional power since it limits the PLA’s strategic space, this report said.

China’s long march toward military self-sufficiency and power projection was on display for all to see late last year. In a series of events to mark the 60th anniversary of establishment of the People’s Republic of China there was a big military parade, an air base “show-and-tell,” a forum of international air commanders and the re-opening after renovation of the extraordinary China Aviation Museum near Beijing.
A military parade across and over Tiananmen Square featured 52 types of weapons developed in China, from self-propelled guns to the KongJing 2000 airborne early warning aircraft, which is based on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport. A total of 160 aircraft from 12 regiments flew over the square.

The air base visit for air attachés and other invited foreigners showed off the PLAAF’s J-10 combat aircraft, which has been in service for two years and is being further developed (see box). It was held at Jining in Shandong Province, home to a regiment of JH-7A strike aircraft, which are being upgraded with new weapons.

The commanders of 24 air forces, plus high-level representatives from another 11 attended the so-called “Peace and Development Forum.” Chinese Defense minister Liang Guanglie told the forum that China is developing “an air force with integrated capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations, in order to contribute to world and regional peace.” The delegates included Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, USAF, who called for military cooperation such as joint exercises in search- and-rescue missions. However, this proposed cooperation may fall victim to China’s anger over last week’s announcement of a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

PLAAF commander Xu Qiliang called for greater coordination of airspace between nations. It seems that the Chinese are still very mindful of the EP-3 incident in 2001 when a PLAAF fighter collided with a U.S. Navy electronic reconnaissance aircraft close to Hainan Island. Chinese security expert Dr. Zhu Feng told APSEC delegates yesterday that he feared another mid-air collision event with an ISR aircraft. 

The China Aviation Museum boasts over 300 aircraft, and no expense has been spared to showcase the country’s military aviation–past, present and future. Situated on a former airbase at Datangshan, the collection of license-built MiG fighters, copies of Cold War Soviet air defense missiles and other relics has been augmented by the latest technology.

The J-10 prototype and the first J-10 two-seat conversion trainer are displayed in a new building, and wall panels reveal hitherto-unpublished details of the aircraft’s avionics and systems architecture. A J-11 fighter stands close by–the Shenyang-built version of the Sukhoi Su-27, production of which continues as the J-11B, despite Russian protests that the terms China’s license to produce the Flanker have been violated.

Also in the hall are examples of the JH-7A strike aircraft and its weaponry, and an H-6 bomber painted to represent the one that dropped China’s first nuclear weapons in the 1960s.