PLA fighter jets join in Turkey air exercises
The PLA is spreading its wings - sending fighter jets to Turkey for mock dogfights in its first air exercises with a Nato country.
Turkish press reports yesterday confirmed the unprecedented involvement of PLA air force jets in Turkey's annual joint exercises, known as Anatolian Eagle, held over the centre of the country last week.
The exercises come amid a flurry of military diplomacy as the PLA finds new ways to test the range and scope of its expanding navy, and now its air force. They also come ahead of a visit to Turkey next month by Premier Wen Jiabao in an apparent warming of ties earlier troubled by last year's violence in Xinjiang .
The PLA's latest mission has captured the attention of the United States, as well as European and Asian militaries, with Washington's envoys in Ankara requesting a rundown of the nature of the exercises, according to Turkish reports.
It is just the second time China's military has exercised with a Nato country. PLA warships visited Italian ports in August after a first foray into the Mediterranean following regular anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.
While reports in Turkey's Zaman newspaper describe Turkish F-16s staging combat drills with Chinese Su-27s, some military analysts believe the PLA would have been far more likely to have sent its more advanced J-11Bs.
One question vexing both diplomatic and private military analysts is precisely how the PLA flew the planes into the area. Military bloggers in the Middle East have reported that Iran opened its airspace to allow the Chinese fighters to transit the area, but this has yet to be confirmed.
The PLA had fighter jets over neighbouring Kazakhstan a few days earlier for the annual Peace Mission exercises with Russia and Central Asian states under the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
Significantly, PLA generals decided to use that mission to demonstrate the expanding range of its air force, flying the jets on an unbroken round trip from bases in China's far west to test mid-air refuelling and long-range command and control systems.
In Turkey, the planes are believed to have operated from the Konya air base - a site inspected by PLA observers during similar exercises with the US last year.
A Chinese plane also stopped for refuelling in Turkey last year en route to the Farnborough Air Show in Britain.
'The Turkey exercise seems to be a whole new mission,' said one Asian military attache. 'At every turn, we can see the PLA constantly testing its operational ability at longer and longer ranges. At this point, we get the sense they are still figuring out just how much they still have to learn. Everything is a lot more difficult at range.'
The Kazakhstan test appeared to expand on large-scale air exercises deep into the South China Sea back in spring that saw J-11s undergo multiple refuelling from tanker planes, all monitored by the large KJ-2000 planes mounted with early-warning radar - drills that alarmed China's East Asian neighbours.
While China and Turkey have maintained a solid defence relationship - jointly producing short-range missiles - broader ties were buffeted last year when Turkey's leaders expressed concern at the crackdown on violence in Xinjiang. Turkey, a leader in the moderate Islamic world, is home to many Uygur exiles.
While China co-operates with Nato navies in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, relations have been dogged by suspicions dating back to the cold war. As well as the recent exposure to the Mediterranean and Nato countries, PLA ships have visited the Persian Gulf, Myanmar, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific in recent months.
The aircraft deployed by the Turks in the joint combat drills were: F-16s
While the Chinese deployed: Su-27s
And most likely also: J-11Bs