China's Air Force Goes Abroad
Sometime during September, an unknown number of China's People's Liberation Army Air Force Russian-built Su-27 and Mig-29 fighters landed at the huge Konya airbase in Turkey's central Anatolia region. Within a few days they were training with Turkish US-built F-16 fighters in the first ever military exercise of its kind between China and a NATO country.
The brief training exercise, significantly held under the aegis of the 'Anatolian Eagle' series of joint military manoeuvres with NATO and other friendly powers, reflects multiple factors that will take some time for Turkey's allies to fully decipher. From a western perspective, China's sudden appearance on NATO's southern flank and other Chinese military adventures in the so-called 'Stans of Central Asia at about the same time was provocative in a period when relations between Beijing and Washington and many European countries are strained by a mixture of economic and military tensions.
This may have been the immediate – if probably opportunistic - intention as the Turkish deployment presaged China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's attendance at a summit with the EU commission in Brussels on Oct. 6 which was widely anticipated to be tense and probably fruitless.
The other, more strategic message embedded in the dog fights over Anatolia is nearer to China's core concerns. The deployment will strengthen the agenda of those within China's government and military who are keen to demonstrate Beijing's reach and ability to surprise. While some remain unsure whether the training event ever actually occurred, most are looking at what the episode may reveal about Turkey's motives and the country's future relationship with NATO and the European Union.
Certainly, China and Turkey appear an uneasy fit for any form of military co-operation beyond the institutional round of bland functions and stilted social events intended to somehow soothe mutual suspicions and calm often barely concealed enmities.
In particular, both countries have recently experienced serious differences over the treatment of the Uighur community, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority long settled in western China. The Uighurs are widely viewed with suspicion by Beijing and many of the Han Chinese now living among them as both a source of separatist unrest and potential Islamic extremism. Equally, many Turks view the Uighurs as victims of Chinese colonial persecution and readily offer their support in the name of pan-Turkic solidarity.
The strength of emotion the issue can generate was evident in Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's accusation that the situation in Xinjiang in July 2009 following clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese was akin to "genocide." Once it became evident that the majority of the casualties among the nearly 200 dead and thousands of injured where ethnically Chinese, the Turkish government moderated its language – even if the overwhelming mood among many Turks remained pro-Uighur if not anti-Chinese.
Erdogan's seemingly instinctive if overblown response and his subsequent softer tone towards China - perhaps reflecting Ankara's grudging recognition that Beijing's position towards the Uighurs echoes Turkey's own problems with Kurdish separatists – is likely to have been regarded in the Chinese foreign ministry as an opportunity to strengthen ties. China's diplomats were aided in this potentially tricky task by Ankara's own calculations following a series of diplomatic reversals that required a powerful, if indirect, response.
It is certain that Turkey's increasingly fraught relationship with the European Union, where a strong 'Gates of Vienna' tendency filters any efforts by Ankara to move closer to the European heartland while playing on atavistic memories of Muslim expansion, will have contributed to the decision of invite Chinese fighters to train in NATO airspace.
Similarly, the March 2010 vote by US legislators that agreed the 1915 killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide, coupled with Washington's failure to seriously censor Israel over its killing of nine ethnic Turks on the Gaza "aid flotilla" in May 2010, have convinced many in Turkey that their country occupies a lowly position in the US pantheon of allies.
Another, perhaps irresistible, motive for the invitation to the Chinese airmen may have been to emphasize the difference between Turkey and Greece. The parlous state of the Greek economy has left the country in the position of permanent mendicancy, most recently relying on China to buy its debt and finance its key shipping sector. Turkey's action, by contrast, demonstrated – if mainly to a domestic audience – the country's independence and sovereign parity with a major power.
China's motives for accepting a Turkish invitation to send its aircraft to Konya also reflects interests that have little to do with the location or significance of their host. While Beijing is now far more comfortable seeing its military deployed further from the country's self-determined core areas of interest, China's often cautious diplomats appear to be increasingly overruled or ignored by political and military factions who value the utility of such displays for a nationalistic domestic audience.
This mood was captured when the despatch of warships in January 2009 to the Gulf of Aden to take part in anti-piracy operations evoked official comparisons with the 15th century Admiral Zheng He's seven voyages to the Middle East and Africa.
The People's Liberation Army and Air Force also participated in the "Peace Mission 2010" series of military exercises conducted in September 2010 in Kazakhstan with military personnel from the other Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. Although the ostensible purpose of the exercise was to test and coordinate joint counter-terrorist operations, in reality the 'Peace Mission' gave China a unique opportunity to deploy land and air units in strength beyond its borders.
According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, at least eight Chinese fighters, bombers, airborne early warning and tanker aircraft flew an unprecedented round trip from Urumqi in western China to an unnamed location in Kazakhstan, where they carried out practice air strikes. The aircraft that flew to Turkey must have taken a similar route, before heading south to Iranian airspace and on to Konya in Turkey.
More pressing, given the persistent tensions in the South China Sea between the US and China, the dramatic appearance of Chinese fighters maneuvering in a NATO country should also enliven the conversation between US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart General Liang Guanglie when they meet in Hanoi at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference on 12 October.
Gavin M. Greenwood is a security consultant with the Hong Kong-based security risk management consultancy firm Allan & Associates.