China has sent its airforce to help in the evacuation of Chinese nationals.
China has sent four military transport planes to help extract the last of its citizens from Libya—even though most have already left—marking the first time that the Chinese air force has participated in a civilian evacuation mission overseas.
The deployment of the Russian-made IL-76 aircraft is another milestone for China’s armed forces, which have been rapidly developing the capabilities to protect the country’s interests far from its own shores over the past decade.
Last week, China took the unprecedented step of diverting a Navy missile frigate that was taking part in antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and dispatching it to the Mediterranean Sea to provide support and protection to the evacuation mission.
It was unclear, however, if the transport planes or the frigate will arrive in time as official Chinese media reported that by Monday morning 29,000 of the 30,000 Chinese who were in Libya had already been rescued.
The frigate on Sunday passed through the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, and isn’t expected to reach waters off Libya’s coast until Wednesday, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
Some military analysts have suggested that China is using the evacuation operation partly as a training exercise for its armed forces, which have not seen live action since a brief border war with Vietnam in 1979.
China’s leaders are also under pressure to show that they are able, and willing, to protect the rapidly growing number of Chinese businesses and citizens operating in foreign countries—especially in unstable regions where China is seeking oil, gas and other industrial raw materials.
The risks in Libya are real nonetheless: a British C-130 military transport plane was hit by small arms fire as it tried to land there to help evacuate British and other foreign citizens, according to the BBC. It said one bullet ricocheted off the pilot’s helmet.
The Chinese transport planes departed Monday, China’s Defense Ministry said in a brief statement without giving details about their destination, arrival time, or when they planned to return.
But the state-run People’s Daily newspaper said on its website that the planes took off from Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, shortly before noon Monday and were flying to the town of Sabha in central Libya.
It also said this was the first time China’s Air Force had taken part in an operation to rescue Chinese citizens overseas.
China has bought several long-range transport planes from Russia since the early 1990s to enhance its ability to provide logistical support for combat aircraft and ground forces far from its shores. It is also developing two indigenous transport planes, called the Y-9 and the Y-20.
Yes, the PLA is without a doubt using this situation as a good training experience for its pilots and crew, but thats not the main reason why the airforce is being sent. The current leadership in Beijing, like all leaders want to be seen as competent and doing whatever possible in helping their fellow citizens. This comes after the Chinese navy was sent to help with the evacuation of Chinese citizens.