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Unfazed: PLAAF continued modernisation during the Covid-19 pandemic

A J-20 fighter jet performs during Changchun Air Show on 27 August 2022. China is said to be integrating some J-20s with the domestically developed WS-10 engine. However, the length of the engine exhaust of this aircraft shows that it is powered by the Russian AL-31F engine. (Getty Images)

In 2016 when Xi Jinping instructed the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to modernise, the order galvanised the Chinese military onto a trajectory of strident modernisation. It is a course that appears to have been unwavering despite unanticipated obstacles such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Xi's orders were crystallised in a 2017 speech to the 19th Party Congress, which called for the “basically complete” modernisation of the PLA by 2035, according to a US Department of Defense (DoD) report to Congress in 2021. Evidence suggests that Beijing's efforts to prepare the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF's) for a potential war continued without pause during the pandemic.

On its southeastern shores, China continued to sortie aircraft into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), according to data from Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND). The MND data showed PLAAF aircraft frequently breaching the median line, a de facto border between the two countries. Beijing subsequently refuted the median line in 2020, according to the US DoD.

During August and September 2020, the PLA's Eastern Theatre Command (ETC) also conducted drills with ships and aircraft near Taiwan.

To its southwest, China did not resume land reclamation or major military infrastructure construction at its seven Spratly Islands outposts. However, Beijing announced the creation of two administrative districts in the South China Sea in April 2020 to solidify its claims in the area.

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