China deployed multiple aircraft including combat helicopters in a counter-terror drill in its restive northwestern region of Xinjiang this week.
It’s rare for governments to deploy air power against insurgents and Chinese state media reports said it was to test how quickly thousands of armed personnel could be transported to the region in case of an emergency.
As many 18 aircraft including eight helicopters were used in the drill, which saw soldiers carry out simulated drills in designated areas of the southern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Though a state media report on the exercise didn’t specify whether it was for the first time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Airforce was being used in an anti-terror drill, a military expert indicated that it was indeed so.
Besides the army and the air force, the Xinjiang Armed Police Corp (XAPC) took part in the exercise.
“Directed by the Xinjiang Armed Police Corps and an unidentified army unit, eight helicopters and 10 civilian planes rapidly transported four groups involving thousands of armed troops. The groups conducted patrols in designated areas, including the prefectures of Kashgar, Hotan and Aksu on Monday,” the PLA Daily reported.
The newspaper added: “The three prefectures are located in southern Xinjiang, an area mainly populated by ethnic Uyghur people, where terrorists have frequently attacked.”
The deployment of PLA Airforce aircraft shows that the government wasn’t willing to take any chance against terror in a frontier province that borders multiple countries as well as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
“The joint drills were problem-solving-oriented and can effectively protect regional security and stability, since the air force, including helicopters, was not in place in previous counter-terrorism operations in Xinjiang,” Li Wei, an anti-terror expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations told state media.
Besides sending a military message to the residents of the region, Beijing has also offered hefty cash rewards to locals for tips against terror.
The state-run Hotan Daily reported last month that rewards could range up to 5 million Yuan ($730,000) for verifiable “operational inside information” on plans for attacks in crowded areas or at government offices.
XUAR, home to the Muslim Uyghur minority community, has seen frequent incidents of ethnic violence. The government blames the violence on foreign-trained Islamic separatists and radicalised locals, but rights group say much of it is a desperate reaction against Beijing’s hardline policies on the customs, culture and identity of the community.
Beijing strictly controls information coming out of the region and state media rarely reports in detail about incidents in the region.