China's People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted a first-of-its-kind live-fire air attack drill on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, state media reported on Thursday.

The PLAAF's J-10 fighters conducted ground attack training in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), testing its capabilities at the 3,500-metre-high plateau amid freezing temperatures, the PLA Daily reported.

This was the second live-fire drill in recent months, following a major operation in October that comprised the air force and armour and artillery units, according to the official Global Times. The newspaper said the J-10's activities on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which is under the Chengdu military region, have been “relatively frequent in the past months”.

While the reports did not give the reason for the exercises, Indian analysts have pointed out that the Chengdu military region and the PLAAF in Tibet are primarily tasked with defending the disputed border with India.

Bai Wei, former deputy chief editor of Aviation World Monthly, told the Global Times that the J-10 was designed “as an air superiority fighter, focusing on air combat and interception capability” but with modern sensors “can also perform well in ground attack roles”.

The drills would help deal with the particular obstacles posed by the plateau such as low oxygen density, which makes it harder to ignite aircraft engines, and shorter runways.

“These reports indicate that China is [strengthening] its conventional deterrents,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, an expert on the Chinese military at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“They basically want to convey to India or other neighbouring countries that they are preparing in high altitude [conditions].”

The two recent drills, he noted, were likely a response to India announcing its deployment of Sukhoi 30 aircraft. Since then “both sides have been ratcheting up” and displaying their capabilities.

“Advertising it in the popular media is one way of communicating to other side: We are also doing something.” “India is doing something similar, whether through the Agni-V test or the Su-30 deployments.”

India and China have pledged to maintain peace and tranquillity along the disputed 3,488-km border, and officials have stressed repeatedly that the border is among the most peaceful in the world. Both sides have, however, continued to strengthen their military and infrastructure capabilities along border regions while negotiations on the dispute continue.

“Operations on the plateau,” said Mr. Bai, “are routine for the air force.”

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