State media says China's military in major air exercises underscoring growing sophistication

BEIJING (AP) — China's military launched major air defense exercises Tuesday, highlighting rising capabilities that are seen as tipping the balance of power in east Asia.

The drills involve more than 10,000 service members, including those from naval and army aviation units and land-based air defense forces, according to the official China News Service.

CNS said the war games would run for five days over parts of the provinces of Shandong and Henan south of the capital Beijing. They will include three simulated attacks and one live-firing exercise designed around the scenario of defending the capital from an air assault.

No rehearsals were held for the exercises, which will emphasize real-time responses to unplanned events and the integration of units under separate commands, CNS said. About 100 aircraft of seven different types will take part, along with air defense missiles and artillery units.

Amid a boom in defense spending, China has lavished funds on its air force, navy and missile forces in recent years as part of a gradual shift away from ground units. The widely respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates total expenditures on the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army, including funding for arms imports and defense research and development, reached nearly $100 billion last year.

New additions to its air forces include SU-27 fighter-bombers purchased from Russia and produced under license by China, along with the homebuilt latest-generation J-10 fighter that Beijing touts as a breakthrough for its sprawling defense industry.

Such hardware and China's adoption of more effective training and tactics is widely seen as strengthening China's ability to assert its territorial claims over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Military planners from New Delhi to Washington have taken note, fueling calls for more attention to Chinese developments and increased regional cooperation with the U.S. military.

While tensions with Taiwan have declined under the island's relatively pro-Beijing administration, China has grown increasingly vocal in protesting U.S. naval operations off its coast.

Beijing repeatedly criticized last month's joint U.S.-South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea and recently elevated the South China Sea — over which it claims complete sovereignty — to its list of high priority territorial claims.

Such moves coincides with a willingness to send its navy further from shore, including the unprecedented dispatch of Chinese ships to join an anti-piracy flotilla off the coast of Somalia.

As troops readied for Tuesday's exercises, two of those ships, the destroyer Guangzhou and frigate Chaohu, docked in Italy as part of a three-nation goodwill cruise, the government's Xinhua News Agency reported.

Overseas visits and more realistic exercises are both aimed at boosting the PLA's ability to project power and improve cooperation between its different branches, said Russell Smith, an analyst with Jane's and former Australian defense attache in Beijing.

"These are opportunities to practice conducting joint operations. I think you're going to be more reorganizing and restructuring in the PLA to emphasize this," Smith said.