Australia and Canada accuse China of ‘dangerous’ air intercepts; Beijing pushes back

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia and Canada have accused China of conducting Dangerous intercepts of maritime patrol aircraft performing routine surveillance and sanctions-monitoring missions over the East and South China seas.

Australia said Sunday that a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon was intercepted by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Shenyang J-16 fighter over the South China Sea while the former was conducting a “routine maritime surveillance” mission on May 26.

The intercept subsequently led to a “dangerous manoeuvre,” according to a news release from the Australian Defense Department. Defense Minister Richard Marles later said the Chinese jet release chaff while flying just ahead of the Australian aircraft, leading to the chaff’s aluminum strips, which are designed to confuse radars, to enter the P-8′s engine.

Data from flight-tracking website Plane Finder showed the P-8A was most likely one of two operating from Clark Air Base in the Philippines, with the aircraft returning three hours after taking off and circling the airfield for an hour before landing.

The incident came to light days after Canadian news portal Global News reported Chinese jets are regularly flying as close as 20-100 feet from a Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora while monitoring activity around North Korea.

The CP-140 is monitoring illegal ship-to-ship transfers of material making its way into and out of North Korea in defiance of United Nations sanctions set up in response to the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Canadian aircraft operates from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa as part of Operation Neon.

It is one of several international assets performing similar missions, which take place mainly over the East China Sea and Yellow Sea. These include another Australian P-8 operating from Kadena under Operation Argos. The Australian Defense Department did not respond to Defense News about whether its aircraft were intercepted during sanctions-monitoring flights.

Global News, citing anonymous sources, reported there have been about 60 interceptions of the CP-140, which is the Canadian designation of the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, over international waters by Chinese fighter jets since December 2021.

More than two dozen of these were deemed dangerous by Canada, with the CP-140 crews reporting the Chinese jets sometimes get close enough that crew members can “make eye contact with the Chinese pilots, and sometimes see them raising their middle fingers,” according to the news report.

A Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora arrives at 5 Wing Goose Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador on its way to Thule Air Base, Greenland, in 2021. (Master Cpl. Krista Blizzard/Canadian NORAD Region)

A Canadian Armed Forces statement released after the report confirmed that People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft did not adhere to international air safety norms.

The military added that the interactions were “unprofessional and/or put the safety of our RCAF personnel at risk,” and that in some instances, crew members “felt sufficiently at risk that they had to quickly modify their own flight path in order to increase separation and avoid a potential collision with the intercepting aircraft.”

The statement said that “the occurrences have also been addressed through diplomatic channels.”

China has hit out at both the Australian and Canadian accusations, with Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Col. Tan Kefei accusing the Australian P-8 of entering airspace “near China’s Xisha Islands for close-in reconnaissance and continuously approached China’s territorial airspace over the Xisha Islands in disregard of repeated warnings from the Chinese side”

Xisha is China’s name for the Paracel group of islands, several of which are occupied by China, with one, Woody Island, featuring Chinese military infrastructure including a harbor and air base.

Kefei added that the People’s Liberation Army dispatched naval and air forces in response, whose actions were “professional, safe, reasonable and legitimate.”

Another spokesman, Senior Col. Wu Qian, accused Canadian military aircraft of increasing “close-up reconnaissance and provocations against China under the pretext of implementing the United Nations Security Council Resolutions,” adding that China’s responses were “reasonable, effective, safe and professional .”

Neither spokesman provided evidence of their claims against the Australian and Canadian plans.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, questioned China’s assertion about Canadian surveillance near the Chinese coast, suggesting instead that the aircraft is performing sanctions-busting missions, in particular illicit ship-to-ship transfers that take place off the Asian nation’s coast.

China has been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to these activities, despite its powerful Coast Guard and maritime law enforcement agencies.

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