Thursday, February 6, 2020

People's Liberation Army Air Force Ba Yi 八一 Aerobatics Display Team from China makes its Singapore Airshow debut

Flying honour guards: Chengdu J-10 fighters from the Ba Yi (August 1st) aerobatics display team perform a flyover in Delta formation. Watch them fly at the Singapore Airshow 2020. (Source: Ministry of National Defense, People's Republic of China)

China's Ba Yi 八一 aerobatics display team arrived in Singapore yesterday afternoon (5 Feb 2020) amid heightened public awareness of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which originated from the city of Wuhan in China.

Seven J-10 fighters (six to perform, one spare) supported by two Il-76 transport planes landed at Changi Airport with over a hundred People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) personnel who form the Ba Yi team. The PLAAF advance party, which assisted with logistics and liaison work with their hosts from Singapore, came here on Monday. The PLAAF personnel are expected to remain in Singapore for the duration of the Singapore Air Show 2020, which takes place from next Tuesday (11 Feb) till Sunday (16 Feb). This puts the team's earliest date of departure as Monday 17 Feb.

I have noted the many points of view and areas of concern raised on various social media platforms on Ba Yi's presence in Singapore. Here are my personal thoughts on Ba Yi's deployment:

1. It’s worth remembering that China is not hermetically sealed despite the onset of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Air cargo planes and cargo ships (sea voyage: 4 days from southern Chinese ports) continue to ply between China and Singapore daily, but with air crew and sailors under stricter supervision.

2. Talks to bring Ba Yi to Singapore began a few months ago. This is a banner year for China-Singapore relations, which marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties in 2020. So the Ba Yi display will be highly significant for China and Singapore.

3. I understand comprehensive measures were adopted to ring fence Ba Yi during their training in the lead-up to the air show. The J-10 fighter aircraft used by the team and their support planes did not originate from Wuhan. Checks and measures on the team went beyond what is already in place for air cargo pilots and merchant mariners. See Xinhua story (click here) on Ba Yi's departure from a military air base in northern China (which is not their usual home base near Wuhan).

4. I agree that heightened alertness over 2019-nCoV makes timely communications on the PLAAF aerobatics display team important and necessary to allay public concerns. As a matter of practice,  however, Singapore doesn’t comment on deployments of foreign military forces that come to its shores. With that in mind, one can see that Singapore has been limited in what it can say (beyond broadbrush assurances) and the depth of explanation it can give regarding the PLAAF display team’s movements, health and safety regime, and training schedule. China-Singapore relations, particularly in the defence relations sphere, helped both countries evaluate Ba Yi's deployment carefully and clinically in view of recent developments.

5. You cannot hide foreign military aircraft, especially exotic ones like the J-10 and large planes like the Il-76, from Singaporean plane spotters. Announcements were made as soon as practicable. For instance, air show organiser, Experia, announced Ba Yi’s upcoming participation at SA2020 soon after the team’s safe arrival here. I believe Singapore's Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, is due to visit the team tomorrow, and we may well hear more on the matter. The Defence Minister traditionally does a site walkabout ahead of the show's opening, so this media call is normal.

6. SG Govt has made tough decisions to protect people in Singapore from the Novel Coronavirus, with travel restrictions imposed even with Singapore's trade with China worth more than US$50 billion. That same mindset applies for all aspects of the Singapore Airshow.


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