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Air power given bigger role in China

| Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, 8:48 p.m.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's restructuring of the nation's military appears poised to take advantage of recent upgrades in fighter jet capabilities to give the nation's air force a more prominent role.

Chinese aircraft buzzed Japanese planes near disputed islands in May and June in two of the neighbors' closest brushes since World War II.

With the ditching of 1950s-era fighters in favor of planes with 1980s-level technology, the air force's strengthened resources are being twinned with the elevation of its leadership within China's military — there are now two representatives of the service on the top, 11-man Central Military Commission. The consequence for nations from Japan to its ally, the United States, is increased Cold War-style encounters over the western Pacific.

“The PLA has realized air superiority can expand defense space and improve defense flexibility, and it can also provide aerial protection for China's so-called three million square kilometers of ‘Blue Land,'” said retired army Colonel Yue Gang, referring to China's maritime sovereign claims.

The People's Liberation Army Air Force has an unprecedented presence in the military's leadership as a result of appointments that are part of “broader PLA efforts to improve the capability to conduct joint operations that involve all the services and to move beyond its history as a military dominated by ground force commanders,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington.

“China is trying to build a modern air force capable of defeating regional air forces and holding its own against the U.S.,” said Saunders.

The Pentagon in a June assessment said China's air force “is pursuing modernization on a scale unprecedented in its history and is rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities.”

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