Monday, September 24, 2018

Air traffic control: China and India compete

Previously obscure Indian Ocean fishing villages such as Hambantota, Gwadar and Kyaukpyu have suddenly been transported into the glare of international media attention as China, India and others compete for control over ports across the region.

But competition over critical infrastructure isn’t just confined to the maritime realm. In fact, access to airfields is just as essential to allow military aircraft to cover the vast distances across the Indian Ocean. This is why China and its competitors are paying ever more attention to securing access to airfields and to deny access to others.   

As a ‘new’ power in the Indian Ocean, China has the biggest need to secure air access to fulfill multiple strategic imperatives. It needs staging points for evacuations or other operations to protect Chinese nationals, and for maritime air surveillance in support of its naval presence.

The PLA Air Force is only starting to make its presence felt. It participated in the 2011 evacuation of some 32,000 Chinese from Libya, staging through Sudan (which likely strained the PLA Air Force’s capabilities). The PLA Air Force also participated in the 2014 search for Malaysian Airlines MH370 out of Perth.

These are baby steps. The PLA Air Force faces a steep learning curve and is well behind the PLA Navy in experience and capabilities (such as air-to-air tankers) necessary to conduct long-distance operations.
24/09/18 David Brewster/The Interpreter/Lowy Institue