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9 June 2022

Dangerous skies over the South China Sea

Australia accuses China of endangering its aircraft in a close encounter. Beijing says it has done nothing wrong.

By Katie Stallard

An Australian surveillance aircraft was on a routine flight in international airspace over the South China Sea when it was intercepted by a Chinese fighter jet on 26 May, according to the Australian Defence Department. What happened next was so dangerous, officials said, that it threatened the safety of the Australian crew and forced the aircraft to return to base.

The Chinese J-16 fighter jet flew “very close” to the side of the Australian aircraft and released flares, before accelerating and cutting in front, Richard Marles, the defence minister, said. “At that moment, it then released a bundle of chaff, which contains small pieces of aluminium, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft. Quite obviously, this is very dangerous.”

Flares and chaff are generally deployed as defensive countermeasures against missile attacks, with the former designed to confuse heat-seeking missiles and the latter comprised of small aluminium-coated fibres to create the high-tech equivalent of a smokescreen and help an aircraft evade radar-guided missiles. The new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, who was sworn in three days before the incident, called it an “act of aggression” and said that his government had complained to Beijing.

Chinese officials insist they have done nothing wrong. Zhao Lijian, foreign ministry spokesman, accused the Australian aircraft of threatening China’s sovereignty by approaching a disputed island chain claimed by Beijing (known as the Paracel or Xisha islands) and ignoring warnings to leave the area.

The South China Sea is a vast, strategically important sea of about four million square kilometres through which approximately a third of global maritime trade passes each year. It also contains valuable fishing grounds and rich reserves of energy resources, such as oil and natural gas. China is one of five rival claimants to portions of it, along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Beijing lays claim to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea and has installed military facilities on artificial islands it has built there in recent years, including missile systems and bases for its fighter jets.

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[See also: The diplomatic battle for the South Pacific]

Australia and other allies of the US regularly conduct what they call “freedom of navigation” air and naval patrols to counter those claims and assert international rights of passage through the area, drawing an increasingly vehement response from Beijing. To this end, Zhao insisted that the Chinese crew’s actions on 26 May were “professional, safe, reasonable and legal” and that they had been defending their own security. He warned that Canberra would face “serious consequences” if it did not halt its “provocative” patrols.

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It was the second time in a week that the Chinese military had been accused of dangerous manoeuvres that put foreign planes at risk. The Canadian armed forces reported that Chinese jets had intercepted their aircraft on several occasions between 26 April and 26 May as they flew in international airspace on UN-approved missions to monitor sanctions compliance by North Korea (in this case, over the North Pacific). The forces said that Canadian crews had been forced to quickly change course to avoid a potential collision. In some instances aircraft reportedly came within such close range that the Canadian pilots were able to make eye contact with their Chinese counterparts, and saw them raising their middle fingers.

[See also: The nuclear tinderbox in the Indo-Pacific]

Here, too, Chinese defence officials have responded by insisting that Canada was to blame. “The Chinese military urges the Canadian military to face up to the seriousness of the situation, strictly discipline its front-line troops and not conduct any risky and provocative acts,” Senior Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesman for the defence ministry, said. The nationalist tabloid Global Times put it more succinctly: “Stay away from Chinese waters if Canadian military planes do not want to be buzzed.”

For a long time China has scrambled fighter jets to intercept foreign planes it deems to be flying too close to its territory, sometimes with lethal consequences. In 2001 a Chinese air force pilot died after a collision with a US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea. The American plane was seriously damaged and forced to make an emergency landing in southern China, where the crew was held for 11 days before being released.

The Chinese military has undergone significant modernisation since the incident, with a particular focus on improving the capabilities of the air force and navy, while relations with the United States have markedly deteriorated. Analysts have warned that another crisis like the EP-3 collision would be much more difficult to resolve peacefully.

Yet the risk of such an incident, as these recent close calls illustrate, is rising. With Beijing adopting an increasingly aggressive stance in its territorial disputes, and Washington and its allies vowing to keep up their patrols through international airspace and waters, they are on a dangerous collision course.

[See also: China doesn’t just want to be part of the global order, it wants to shape it]

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