Holding on: PLA retains its role despite Chinese airspace reforms

02 May 2017
Chinese President Xi Jinping points during a visit to the construction site of Beijing Daxing International Airport in February 2017. While Xi aims to enhance Chinese civil aviation, the military still has significant influence over airspace management and infrastructure development. Source: PA

There is still some way to go to loosen the grip of the Chinese military on air traffic control

When President Xi Jinping donned a red helmet and rubber boots to inspect the construction site of Beijing Daxing International Airport on 23 February 2017, he told the assembled engineers and workers that the airport was part of a plan to transform China into a "powerful civil aviation nation".

Xi is perhaps better positioned than any previous Chinese paramount leader to make that plan happen; since taking power in 2013, he has overseen wide-ranging reforms to the military, which still directly controls most of the airspace in China. Xi is no longer just the chairman of the Central Military Commission that has traditionally overseen the army. He has also made himself the head of the new Joint Operations Command Centre, a body modelled on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

For the first time, a Chinese president has direct input on operational plans and decisions. This is important for civil aviation, as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) ultimately Chinese airspace via the State Air Traffic Control Commission (SATCC). Even though the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) participates in the SATCC, the PLA Air Force and the PLA General Staff Department take the operational lead on air traffic control (ATC).

This arrangement reflects nervousness about the strategic security of ATC. It is apparent that the government wants the military to stay in control until it is sure that ATC networks and systems are sealed off from external interference.

Premier Li Keqiang made a promise to further the concept of an "interchangeable" aviation industry" during a speech at the National People's Congress (NPC) in March 2017. Li referred to a Civilian Military Mixed Use Working Committee, set up by the Politburo in January to co-ordinate and find solutions for ATC issues.

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