At least three Ilyushin Il-76 transportation planes from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force were spotted as they descended into Hong Kong’s airport earlier this month.
It was later revealed that they were there to airlift an undisclosed number of Chinese troops as well as their ammunition to join tripartite war games with the Thai and Malaysian militaries which ended in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan last week.
This was the first time the Chinese military marshaled its force overseas via Hong Kong’s airport.
Subsequent reports by state broadcaster China Central Television noted that a platoon of PLA commanders and analysts had also embarked on their flight to Malaysia from Hong Kong following a brief ceremony held on the apron, along with elite soldiers and commandos mainly selected from the force’s Hong Kong Garrison.
It is understood that the airport’s operation was not affected thanks to the close liaison between the PLA and Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department.
Military observers say transporting troops via a major international aviation hub like Hong Kong is a sign that the PLA would no longer blot out its deployment in and outside the city – a former British colony with its own political and economic systems largely preserved – and that a more self-assortative Beijing is no longer worried by the exposure and speculation high-profile moves may draw.
In the past, Chinese servicemen stationed in Hong Kong were strictly confined to their barracks throughout their tours, and their movements and rotations were also carefully coordinated and carried out usually during the early hours so as to stay away from the media’s prying eyes.
The PLA used to requisition nearby airports in Shenzhen and Zhuhai in Guangdong province to transport personnel and equipment to and from Hong Kong.
In the past, members of the PLA’s Hong Kong Garrison had to head north and cross the border to board planes at Shenzhen’s airport to participate in a similar Malaysian drill in 2016.
Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak airport in East Kowloon with its single runway jutting into Victoria Harbor used to be a hive of activity for the British military for more than half a century, with troops and materiel going in and out of the then colony and to other outposts of the UK, to the US and other allies.
The PLA established a Military Transportation Center at the new airport in 1998, yet the irony is that facility is only frequented by US military aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster IIIs, which are used to transport documents and equipment on a quarterly basis to Washington’s consulate in Hong Kong, one of the largest US diplomatic missions in the Asia-Pacific.
The daily running of the facility, however, is in the hands of the Airport Authority and the site is not gazetted as a military closed area.
Hong Kong airport, with its sound infrastructure and logistical support, has the potential to serve as a pivotal hub for the PLA to project its force to the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait as well as Southeast Asia. All are within a five-hour flight.