It is learnt that Chinese Air Force planes had re-fuelled in Pakistan and Iran last month while on their way to Turkey to participate in a joint air exercise with Turkish Air Force planes. On the way back, they refuelled only in Iran. The air exercise preceded the recent visit of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Turkey.
Turkey’s agreement to hold a joint exercise with the People’s Liberation Army (Air Force) is significant for two reasons. Firstly, Turkey agreed to participate in the exercise and to host Wen despite the considerable unhappiness and anger caused among the religious elements of Turkey last year over the suppression of the Uighurs of Xinjiang by the PLA. The Munich-based World Uighur Congress, which Beijing blamed for the Uighur uprising in Xinjiang last year, enjoys considerable support in Turkey. Secondly, the Obama Administration does not appear to have opposed the joint exercise despite the fact that the planes of the Turkish Air Force that participated in the joint exercise had been given by the US.
Some details of the exercise have been carried by the People’s Daily of China on the basis of Western and Turkish media reports. The salient points are summarized below:
- Turkish press reports 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.
- Army Lt. Col. Tamara Parker, a Pentagon spokeswoman, confirmed European press reports of the unusual aerial military exercises involving U.S.-made Turkish jets and Chinese Su-27 fighters that engaged in simulated aerial combat. She said: "The Government of Turkey is committed to the NATO Alliance and the continuation of strong ties to the United States, and Turkey assured us they would take the utmost care related to their possession of U.S. and NATO technologies." However, she did not address the issue of whether the Chinese military might have learned sensitive NATO aerial combat information.
- Jane's Defense Weekly, quoting Turkish diplomatic sources, stated that the exercises involved less-capable U.S.-made F-4s and Chinese Su-27s, but not the more advanced U.S.-made F-16s.
- Ed Timperlake, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot and former Pentagon technology security official, said allowing the Chinese Air Force to exercise with a NATO ally posed security risks. He said: 'The Turkish Air Force helping the PLAAF to see NATO combat tactics and training is a very bad idea. It is deadly serious stuff." He said the exercises and Turkey's warming relations with neighboring Iran should lead the Pentagon to rethink its decision to sell the new F-35 jet to Turkey. Richard Fisher, a specialist on China's military at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, also criticized Turkey's military for conducting aerial exercises with a communist power that posed a threat to U.S. and allied security interests in Asia. "It's not a good thing," he said.Mr. Fisher said Turkey in the late 1990s used Chinese technology to jointly develop short-range B611 missiles.
- The Tehran Press TV Online reported that Iran opened its airspace to the Turkish and Chinese jets.
- The daily Hurriyat ( of Turkey?) reported that Iran indirectly supported a secret military drill between the Turkish and Chinese Air Forces. Four drill-bound Chinese SU-27 warplanes that took off from bases in China refuelled in Iran – the first time the Islamic Republic has ever allowed foreign warplanes to refuel at its airbases, the daily said. The Russian-made SU-27s used by the Chinese Air Force had to refuel in both Pakistan and Iran because of their limited 3,500-kilometer range. Official letters were sent to the two countries prior to the exercise requesting the use of airspace and passage and refuelling privileges. The warplanes refuelled a second time in Iran on their return to China. The exercise was conducted after two years of deliberations, the report said, adding that its sole purpose was to improve mutual cooperation between the two friendly countries. Washington contacted Ankara ahead of the drill to express concerns over the planned use of F-16 warplanes in a military drill involving China – which the U.S. considers a possible threat. "We expect you to honor the agreement article that requires the exercise of caution regarding the transfer of technology to third countries," the memorandum read. American concerns were taken into consideration and F-16 fighters were replaced by older F-4 models in the exercise.
The China Daily reported on October 15 that a new Strategic Concept expected to be discussed by a NATO summit to be held in Lisbon next month proposes regular consultations with countries like China and India. The paper said: “However, there is slim hope that China will put on its own agenda the cooperation with the NATO, according to Tao Wenzhao, a professor at the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "NATO has been eyeing deeper ties with China for some time, because they are looking for substantial help from China to ease things up in Afghanistan, a nine-year-old war that has required the deployment of 150,000 multinational troops," Tao said. But even if Beijing is supportive of anti-terrorism measures, China remains a country firmly committed to non-alliance. Moreover, it is unlikely China would carry out in-depth cooperation with NATO, an outcome of the cold war, said Tao.”
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai