China needs to increase its Air Force capabilities if it is to become the undisputed force in the Western Pacific and thwart the United States' military pivot toward Asia, according to an official government study cited in a Monday report by the South China Morning Post. The report comes at a time when China’s Navy is increasing its presence in the South and East China seas, where the race to claim potential oil and gas reserves, trade routes and rich fishing stocks has caused intense political debate and military posturing.
The report, which was written by the Beijing-based think tank the Air Force Command Academy and has not been publicly released, envisions China’s military strategy for the region up until 2030. While mentioning the U.S., Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam as potential threats in the airspace, the report also notes two strategic island chains as specific areas of defense in the future.
The first set of island chains, which link Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines, is touted as an area that military leaders in Beijing see as an important barrier of defense, in particular against U.S. military presence. The second island chain includes a wider area that stretches from Japan’s Izu Island chain to Guam and out to New Guinea and would be used to launch attacks.
To achieve such a wide range of defense options the Navy and Air Force would have to work more closely together, says Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert and retired senior colonel. “In the future, joint exercises between services and arms [of the navy and air force] could be incrementally increased,” he said.
The report doesn’t mention whether or not the fake islands being created by China in the South China Sea are part of its defense plan. However, the Air Force’s current modernization project is behind schedule.
“The air force had already been rapidly expanding its fighter program, and the majority of its combat aircraft were expected to be of a modern standard by the end of 2016,” said Rukmani Gupta, senior armed forces analyst at IHS Janes. “But the air force still lagged in aerial refueling, hindering its power projection capabilities.