On April 9 reports emerged that six Chinese Y-20 cargo jets made a surprise flight into Europe, heading to Serbia reportedly carrying HQ-22 surface to air missile systems to bolster the air defences of the European country.
It’s rare for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force to deploy a large number of transport aircraft over Europe.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the consignment comprised “regular military supplies” but did not share details.
A Chinese state media report said the delivery could have been that of the FK-3, the export version of the Chinese HQ-22 surface-to-air missile system.
According to commercial flight trackers, the six Y-20 aircraft were first spotted heading west in Turkish airspace late Friday night, and later local residents took photos of the Y-20s, which allegedly landed at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade, Serbia. The aircraft later flew over the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey again on their way back to China.
China has not made an official announcement about the mission as of press time, but the Global Times learned that the Y-20s indeed have carried out such a flight.
The delivery comes in the backdrop of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and western worries over an arms build-up in the Balkan region.
The deployment of the Y-20 fleet has been interpreted as a show of China’s strategic reach amid the turmoil in Ukraine in which Beijing has turned up as a staunch ally of Russia, refusing to criticise Moscow’s invasion of Kyiv.
It is a new record that an overseas mission features six Y-20s, and it is also very rare to see so many Y-20s being deployed at the same time, Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert, told the Global Times on Sunday.
The mission reflects a significant improvement in the PLA Air Force’s long-range strategic transport capabilities, as well as the large transport aircraft’s logistics support and maintenance capabilities in intercontinental flights, Fu said.
It is more difficult to organize a large fleet featuring six Y-20s compared with only one or two of the aircraft, Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Sunday.
Serbia remains one of just two countries in Europe outside the western sphere of influence alongside Belarus, and is suspected of having requested its missile systems be delivered faster amid rising tensions on the continent due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War.
Serbia remains a close Russian military partner and was long expected to purchase Russian air defence systems such as the S-400, but a number of factors including American sanctions on clients for Russian arms are thought to have led the country to instead favor the more affordable Chinese HQ-22, which is a medium-range system with capabilities thought to exceed its Russian equivalents.
Chinese and Russian aerial warfare systems remain highly compatible, with several countries including China itself fielding both alongside one another and networking them without issue. Serbia has strongly supported the Russian position against NATO, and previously had a long conflict and was extensively bombed by the Western alliance during the 1990s.