China and its all-weather ally Pakistan are taking part in a joint air force drill at Bholari in Sindh, northeast of Pakistan’s Karachi city. The area is located close to India’s Gujarat border.

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The China-Pakistan Joint Air Force Exercise Shaheen (Eagle) – IX will last till the end of December.

According to the Chinese military, this exercise is aimed at improving “actual combat training” of the two forces. However, the state-owned Global Times said the “joint training amid the COVID-19 pandemic shows the profound friendship between China and Pakistan”.

Map indicating locations of Pakistan and China

The military exercise between the iron brothers comes at a time when India is engaged in border conflicts with both countries.

While the India-China border stand-off in Eastern Ladakh has entered its seventh month, the relations between New Delhi and Islamabad have remained tense since August 2019 when the Modi government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.

“It (drills) will promote the development of China-Pakistan mil-to-mil relationships, deepen practical cooperation between the two air forces and improve the actual-combat training level of the two sides,” a statement issued by China’s PLA said.

The details of the ‘Shaheen’ drill such as the number or type of the aircraft being used have not been revealed yet.

Open-source intelligence Twitter handle @detresfa_ has posted satellite images showing A (PLAAF) Y20 heavy-lift plane and another unknown aircraft followed the same route to Bholari Airbase for joining the military drills on Monday.

Y-20 is China’s largest military aircraft serving multiple purposes such as tank-carrying, supply-delivering, troop-transporting. It can transport China’s largest tank the ZTZ99. It has a range of 4,850 miles while carrying 40 tons of cargo, and 2,800 miles when fully laden.

The last edition of the Shaheen drill held in China’s Xinjiang, near Line of Actual Control, in 2019 was the largest one with nearly 50 warplanes from the two countries taking part in it.

The site of current air drills, the Bholari airbase, holds “strategic significance for capacity enhancement of Pakistan Air Force in operational domain both overland as well as at sea”, Pakistan Air Force Chief Sohail Aman said.

This is the ninth edition of the drill, called ‘Xiongying’ in Chinese. Chinese military aviation expert Fu Qianshao has told the state-owned media that India-Pakistan and China-India confrontations will not affect the normal military exchanges between China and Pakistan.

He added that India’s frequent military exercises with other countries have given it little reason to question normal military exchanges among other countries.

Last week, Pakistan President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan had met visiting Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe in Islamabad. Alvi had lent relentless support to China on issues related to the South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

Indian analysts have noted that Wei’s visit to Islamabad was “apparently made with an eye on India,” and “clearly wanted to add some steel to Pakistan’s spine”.

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