Chinese air force conducts first drill in western Pacific

'Routine' exercise takes long-range aircraft through area between Taiwan and Philippines

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 12:53am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 8:53am

The PLA held its first drill in airspace above the western Pacific Ocean on Monday, as part of its plan to boost capacity in far-seas operations, an air force spokesman said in Guangzhou, according to the military's news portal.

Colonel Shen Jinke said an unspecified number of aircraft took part in the exercise after flying over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. The planes returned to base the same day, he said, without giving more details.

The statement was carried by the People's Liberation Army's news portal with several file photos of long-range bombers, identified only as "new models". Shen said the drill was part of the air force's routine training regime and not aimed at any particular country or target.

"The operations are in line with international laws and practices and carry no threats to other countries or regions," Shen was quoted as saying.

But Ni Lexiong , a Shanghai-based military expert, said the drill was an apparent response to the United States' recent call for Southeastern Asian nations to patrol the South China Sea, amid China's increasing air force capacity in recent years.

"It's obviously a calculated move after recent moves by the US, which has built up tensions in the South China Sea. The drill by the PLA Air Force might further raise tensions, but the world will see who created the problem in the first place," Ni said.

State media told the US to stop "kibitzing", or interfering in others' affairs, after Vice-Admiral Robert Thomas said his fleet would support any patrols by a combined force of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The command ship of the Seventh Fleet, USS Blue Ridge, last week made a port call in Hong Kong, anchoring off the Tsing Ma bridge.

US senators have also said a formal American strategy is needed to deal with China's land reclamation on reefs in waters criss-crossed by claims from Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as Taipei.

China said all reclamation works took place within its so-called nine-dash line that claims most of the sea, although it has not yet clarified whether the line marked its territorial boundary, despite repeated requests by the US for an explanation.

Ni said the PLA drill was also aimed at sending a warning to the Philippines to "not stay too close" to the US.