China-India relations

China boosts air defences in western region as Indian border row simmers

Advanced fighter jets sent for high-altitude drill a month after satellite images showed both China and India building up airbases near Doklam plateau

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2018, 8:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2018, 11:16pm

China’s air force is trying to boost its capability at high altitudes over its far western airbases amid simmering tensions with India, sending more advanced fighter jets to the area.

Months after a protracted stand-off on the Doklam plateau ended, both nations are still building up their militaries along the border – which observers say is preparation for further confrontation.

On Tuesday last week, J-10 and J-11 fighter jets joined a combat training exercise in western China, according to an article and photos on the People’s Liberation Army website.

The drill was held a month after satellite images showed a Chinese build-up in air power at two bases near the border – including fighter aircraft and helicopters – while the Indian air force had also deployed more Su-30 MKI warplanes to two airbases near Doklam since the middle of last year.

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China and India were embroiled in a 72-day military face-off in the disputed Himalayan border area last summer, eventually agreeing to an “expeditious disengagement” of troops in late August. But reports since then have suggested that China has continued building roads at the border – shared with India and Bhutan – and military personnel from both sides are still stationed there.

Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, said China’s deployment of J-10s and J-11s was a sign it is trying to boost its defences in the area to counter any threat from India.

J-11s have a range of 1,500km, which can be extended with additional fuel tanks, while J-10 jet fighters have a range of 1,850km.

“The upgrade in the Western Theatre Command is urgent because in China’s western region, relations with India have been strained due to the border tensions, with no resolution in sight,” Song said.

“India is gearing up already, so it’s necessary for China to prepare for a possible military confrontation,” he said. “And in these mountainous areas, superiority in the air is of utmost importance.”

The PLA’s western zone covers Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Chongqing.

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Adam Ni, a military researcher from the Australian National University, said China’s western airbases were located in high altitudes with low air density, making it a difficult environment for the air force to operate in.

“The new deployment of the jets is part of a concerted effort to improve Chinese air power, which is at initial disadvantage against India due to the natural landscape,” he said. “However, this disadvantage is more than offset by the quantitative and qualitative advantages that China’s air force can call upon in a prolonged conflict.”

Ni added that China was trying to build on these advantages by developing and deploying advanced jets and improving its logistics, airbases and technology.

Extreme weather poses the greatest challenge at high altitudes, according to Song, because fuel efficiency is lower and the aircraft must be able to withstand tougher conditions.

He said using more advanced aircraft was only one aspect of the air force’s approach to overcoming altitude problems.

“China also needs to constantly train pilots and prepare them for high altitudes, and improve cooperation between the support team on the ground and pilots to make sure performance isn’t affected [in the difficult conditions],” he said.

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But Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said the J-10 and J-11 fighter jets were less advanced than its J-20 stealth fighters and the Su-35s that were recently sent on combat patrol over the South China Sea – suggesting Beijing’s priority was still its rivalry with Washington.

“Sending these jets to different theatre commands shows that the major focus of China’s military is still the east, with the United States being the main rival. The threat from India comes second in China’s military priority,” he said. “But of course China made sure the new jets it deployed were better than India’s.”