China mounts air exercise with Turkey, U.S. says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The air forces of China and Turkey have carried out a joint exercise, the U.S. Defense Department said on Friday, in what appeared to be the first such drill involving Beijing and a NATO member country.

Turkey assured the United States it would take the “utmost care” to protect sensitive U.S. and NATO technologies, said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Tamara Parker, a department spokeswoman.

She described Turkey’s government as committed to the NATO alliance and the continuation of strong ties to the United States.

“To the best of our knowledge, U.S.-made F-16s were not involved in the exercise,” Parker said. She referred a caller to the Turkish government for details of the maneuvers.

The office of the Turkish defense attache in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Turkish press reports have said the exercises took place September 20 through October 4 at the Konya air base in Turkey’s central Anatolia region.

Some U.S. experts described the exercise as underscoring China’s capability to operate beyond its territory.

David Finkelstein, director of China Studies at the CNA research group in Alexandria, Virginia, said it may be the first time China’s People’s Liberation Army air force engaged in a combined exercise with a NATO country in a NATO country.

“Indeed, an incipient expeditionary PLA is in the making,” said Finkelstein.

Another Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, said indications were that the Turkish air force flew F-4 Phantom fighters, used extensively by the United States during the Vietnam War, while China flew Russian-built SU-27s.

The Chinese-Turkish maneuvers occurred before a visit to Turkey this week by Premier Wen Jiabao. Turkey and China aim to triple two-way trade to $50 billion a year by 2015 under a new “strategic partnership,” Wen told a news conference in Ankara on Friday with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

James Clad, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia from 2007 to 2009, said the drill highlighted Turkey’s “omni-directional” foreign policy.

The dislike by Turkey and the Muslim world of Chinese policies in western China “won’t be going away soon,” added Clad, now with the Defense Department’s National Defense University.

Turkey’s ties with China have been strained at times, notably over Beijing’s tough approach to unrest in Xinjiang, home to China’s Muslim Turkic minority Uighurs.

“It seems the Turks opted to react to overtures from the Chinese which, with appropriate technological restrictions, could prove useful in assessing Chinese air capabilities,” Clad said.

Editing by Peter Cooney