Live Fire Military Training Drills in East China Sea: An Appraisal

Col NSP Bisht


On July 27, 2014 the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced that military exercises will be conducted off China’s South East coast in the East China Sea from July 29 to August 15, 2014. It further stated that the “Chinese military moves to hone its craft in simulating battles to prepare for potential challenges in a more convoluted international situation”[1]. These exercises not only were conducted to commemorate August 1, PLA’s 87th Anniversary, but also were in consonance with President Xi’s dictat regarding the importance of improving the PLA’s military capabilities and combat readiness.

The Impact of the Exercises: Affected Airports

These exercises are being conducted by the PLA Army (PLAA)[2] and the area of the exercise fell under the jurisdiction of the Nanjing and Jinan Military Area Commands (MAC). The state media reported that “ten units, including the air defense groups and other branches of it armed forces, from six MACs will take part in these drills”[3]. As on today each Combined Corps (erstwhile Group Armies) has one AD Brigade in its ORBAT and the PLAA in total has 21 AD brigades and one Independent AD regiment. In addition the Military Region Air Force (MRAF) of PLA Air force (PLAAF) has its own air defense resources[4].  As far as the air space is concerned about 80 percent, as stated by various sources, is controlled by the Chinese military. In comparison US military controls only 20 percent of the airspace.

As per the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, the aim of these exercises was twofold; firstly to test the combat capabilities of the participating units/ groups and secondly to improve real combat training levels and military preparedness.

The timing of these exercises was surprising, as these were conducted at the peak air travel period and had an adverse effect on a number of Chinese budget airlines including China Eastern, China Southern, Air China, Spring Airlines Co and Dragon Air to name a few. Analyst project a reduction in revenues of 1 to 2 percent for China Eastern on an annualized basis[5]. On July 29, 2014 from 1400 hours to 1800 hours, at the two Shanghai airports, there was a 75 percent drop in commercial traffic, a total of 135 flights were cancelled and 428 flights were delayed[6]. As far as the passengers were concerned, the cancellations and delays only increased their misery and difficulties, leading to a number of cancellations and change of travel plans. Also a number of passengers shifted their travel plans from airlines to the High Speed Railway, especially those travelling between Shanghai and Beijing. Due to lack of information, there was a lot of online rumor mongering, including a rumor that the air space has been closed to prevent a high level government official from fleeing the country. For this online rumor mongering two persons were arrested[7] and 37 warned by the Chinese authorities[8].

Some more reasons that can be attributed to the conduct of these exercises at this time are;

  • This period coincides with three important dates for the PLA. Firstly, August 1, 2014 is the 120th anniversary of the Chinese defeat in the First Sino-Japan War, which led to the collapse of the Qing dynasty and rise of Japan as an Asian power. Today the PLA wants itself to be so capable and strong that tragedies such as the First Sino-Japan war do not repeat. Secondly, August 1, 2014 is the 87th anniversary of the PLA also called “The Army Day”. And lastly on August 15, 1945 the Japanese surrendered to the US, ending Second World War in Asia and Manchuria reverted back to China.
  • This year the Army Day was celebrated by conducting military exercises which were largest over past few years. In addition to these exercises, the PLA Navy (PLAN) carried out live firing drills in the Bohai Sea in the Yellow Sea and Beibu Gulf in the South China Sea. On land, PLAA conducted exercise named ‘Huoli-2014’, involving 20,000 personnel from five MACs, multiple training bases and the PLA Nanjing Artillery Academy. This is a three month exercise and will culminate in end August. Exercise ‘Kuayue-2014 Zhurihe’ was conducted in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which ended, in early August[9].
  • These exercises can be seen as an attempt by the PLAA to regain some of the influence that it has lost to the rapidly modernizing PLAAF and PLAN in recent years. Another set of analysts believe that these exercises were intended to signal China’s tough stance towards Japan and US.
  • With these exercises the PLA wants to project itself as a modern professional army especially in the light of President Xi Jinping’s wide ranging anti-corruption campaign and his call to the PLA to turn itself into a force that “can fight and win wars”.
  • Lastly in light of the MH 17 tragedy in Ukraine, the PLAA to be safe increased the security and safety buffer and hence the enhanced scope of the live fire drills.

These exercises do have certain take away’s for India and these are enumerated as under;

  • The symbolism attached to dates and times in Chinese history, with the conduct of these exercises, do convey a message to us. In any future developing situation, a date in the history of China or the CPC or the PLA will have an impact.
  • The thought today, generally accepted as a rule, that if Chinese leadership has to choose between a military option and economic well-being, the tilt will be towards economy. The manner in which these exercises were conducted points to the contrary. The present leadership of China places security concerns over the economy and the conduct of these exercises and the closure of the air space is a very strong indicator of this. If this trend grows, in future we will witness many incidents and events where the defense of PRC will score over the economy.

End Notes                   

[1] Bai Tiantian, PLA begins large scale drills, Global Times, July 28, 2014, accessed from http://eng.mod.gov.cn/MilitaryExercises/2014-07/28/content_4524991.htm.

[2] Jamil Anderlini, China domestic flights cancelled for military exercises, Financial Times, July 29, 2014, accessed from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/28f55908-16e3-11e4-8617-00144feabdc0.html#axzz392lq5kSa.

[3] Phillip Wen, China’s military muscle-flexing ensnarls air traffic, Fairfax Media, July 27, 2014 accessed from http://www.smh.com.au/world/china8217s-military-muscleflexing-ensnarls-air-traffic-20140727-zxb8x.html#ixzz392t9uZkz.

[4] The Military Balance 2014, International Institute of Strategic Studies, Routledge London, p 232, 2014.

[5] Joanne Chiu, Military Exercises Result in Glut of Canceled Flights in China Move Is Latest Blow to Travelers in Country Already Plagued by Delays, Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2014, accessed from http://online.wsj.com/articles/commercial-airlines-asked-to-reduce-flights-by-75-in-shanghai-due-to-military-exercises-1406622812.

[6] Ibid.

[7]  Julie Makinen, Hundreds of flights disrupted in Shanghai; military exercises cited, LA Times, July 21, 2014, accessed from http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-china-airline-flights-delayed-20140721-story.html

[8] Charles Liu, Massive flight delays as China conducts military exercises in civilian airspace, The Nanfang, July 22, 2014, accessed from http://www.thenanfang.com/blog/massive-flight-delays-as-china-conducts-military-exercises-in-civilian-airspace/

[9] Bai Tiantian, PLA begins large scale drills, Global Times, July 28, 2014, accessed from http://eng.mod.gov.cn/MilitaryExercises/2014-07/28/content_4524991.htm.


Col NSP Bisht is a Senior Research Fellow at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.

(Article uploaded on August 28, 2014).

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.



MacGregor Medal