Malaysia’s accusation that 16 Chinese military transport aircraft had been involved in an “intrusion” near its coastline has been greeted with scepticism by analysts who questioned the practicality of carrying out the operation on such a large scale.
They said that the vast distance from China’s own coast and the limited facilities available in Chinese-held parts of the disputed South China Sea, meant it would have been an “immense logistical feat” to carry out an operation on such a scale.
On Monday, Malaysia’s air force said it had detected “suspicious” activities near the Malaysian-administered Luconia Shoals.
It said Malaysian interceptors had identified 16 aircraft in the formation – consisting of Ilyushin IL-76 and Xian Y-20 transport planes — and released pictures taken at the time showing individual IL-776 and Y-20 planes.
China, which has insisted that its actions were in accordance with international law and not targeted at any country, has not commented on the number of planes involved.
However, a source inside the Chinese military with direct knowledge of the situation, has previously said that China had only dispatched two transport planes to the South China Sea to deliver supplies to troops stationed there, adding that they had then conducted a further exercise to familiarise themselves with the weather and conditions in the area.
Ridzwan Rahmat, principal defence analyst at Janes, said it was unlikely that China would have sent 16 transport planes on one mission.
“I am quite perplexed to see that the Malaysians had spotted 16 aircraft,” Rahmat said. “China has sent squadrons to the South China Sea before, but not on this scale. So I do wonder how they got this number.”
Rahmat said the claim that 16 aircraft were involved in the latest exercise seemed quite a stretch.
Earlier this year, the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command conducted a long-distance training exercise involving 10 H-6 bombers, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
“It’s quite unusual for China to deploy 16 aircraft at one go. In terms of operations, it is an immense logistical feat to deploy that many aircraft, and will certainly put a dent in the formation fuel allocation for the year,” Rahmat said.
Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military analyst, said the Malaysians said they had detected the aircraft near Mischief Reef, the site of a Chinese military airbase which is more than 1,100km from the southern coast of Hainan island.
That is further than Chinese fighters can travel without aerial refuelling so only transport planes were likely to have been involved.
“Transporters are giant cargo planes. One Y-20 can carry a maximum cargo capacity of 66 tonnes, and one IL-76 can carry 42 to 60 tonnes. If there were eight Y-20 and eight IL-76, they could carry a maximum of 1,134 tonnes. What would China do with 1134 tonnes? It’s quite an unlikely move,” said Zhou.
Zhou also said the Chinese military facilities built on Mischief Reef and other artificial islands in the South China Sea could not support 16 transport planes.
China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea through its “nine-dash line”, which stretches as far as 2,000km from the mainland, including waters close to Indonesia and Malaysia.
A number of countries in the region have overlapping claims and last year Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations rattled Beijing by sending diplomatic notes to the United Nations opposing the nine-dash line.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.