‘Be alarmed’: China sets dangerous precedent

Analysts have said China’s interception of a RAAF aircraft is “deliberate and an escalation” and shows “it’s time to be alarmed, not just alert”.

It’s the latest in a long chain of escalations. But this one may represent a tipping point. It’s one thing to fly alongside and waggle wings – but China dumping a cloud of metal in front of an Australian aircraft’s engine while over international waters is a clear provocation.

What comes next?

A series of aggressive intercepts of Australian and Canadian surveillance aircraft has unleashed a raging debate over China’s slow but steady expansion in the South and East China Seas.

On May 26, just five days after the Australian Federal Election, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8A Poseidon was confronted by a Chinese combat aircraft over the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.

Two days later, Chinese and Russian bombers flew a joint mission over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea as the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States met in Tokyo.

All the while, Canadian P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft were being harassed while enforcing the ceasefire between North and South Korea.

Lowy Institute analyst Peter Layton says the incident shows “it’s time to be alarmed, not just alert”. “The P-8s flight was unremarkable, the J-16 fighter’s aggressive moves anything but,” he says.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Michael Shoebridge agrees.

“Depending on what the PLA’s decoy systems are composed of and how much material gets ingested (neither is clear), this could damage the aircraft’s engines and cause it to crash,” he says.

“The PLA pilot would have known this, so it is deliberate aggression and an escalation from the Chinese military.”

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Pushing the envelope

It’s not the first time China has pulled a dangerous stunt on surveillance aircraft operating in international waters in the South China Sea.

And Canada says its version of the P-3 Orion, the Aurora, has been buzzed by PLA jets on several occasions between April 26 and May 26 – with crews forced to take evasive action while in international airspace near North Korea.

“China is now taking increasingly aggressive actions that are a clear deviation of the pattern of the last several years. China is now “pushing the envelope” and in keeping with being a part of a long-term plan,” notes Mr Layton.

In 2001, a Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighter collided with a US Aries II intelligence-gathering aircraft while attempting to force it off course. The badly damaged Aries was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan. The Chinese fighter pilot died when his aircraft plunged into the water.

In February this year, another RAAF Poseidon was targeted by a laser carried aboard a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship travelling through the Arafura Sea to Australia’s north. China then accused Australia of harassing its warships by dropping sonobuoys in their vicinity.

“Beijing could also apologise to Australia and Canada and discipline the PLA pilots involved and their commanders,” says Mr Shoebridge.

“But no one who’s watched how Xi has stoked violent nationalism, turned his diplomats into ‘wolf warriors’ and let violent voices shout online for the Ukrainian people to die to deliver Vladimir Putin victory in his horrific war can expect to see this from Beijing.”

Fight or flight in the grey zone

The Lowy Institute’s Peter Layton says this is a clear step forward in Bejing’s long-standing practice of pushing just hard enough to achieve its objectives – but not hard enough to provoke a response.

It’s a behaviour known as the grey zone in international affairs.

“Grey-zone actions don’t just happen,” says Mr Layton. “They are implemented in a carefully designed campaign plan controlled by the CCP high-level leadership and strategic-level military commanders.

“Grey-zone actions are not those of tactical commanders freelancing. Instead, they are carefully scripted brinkmanship.”

The Australian Department of Defence responded to the incident by saying it had “for decades undertaken maritime surveillance activities in the region” and “does so in accordance with international law, exercising the right to freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace”.

Beijing, however, has arbitrarily claimed the entirety of the South China Sea as its territorial waters. That leaves nations such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia with just a narrow strip of water along their coasts.

A UN court set up to enforce the international convention on the law of the sea ruled Beijing’s claims as “baseless”. Beijing retaliated by saying the court has no jurisdiction over its territorial waters.

Since the ruling, China’s military has significantly increased its military presence in the region. Now a string of illegal artificial island fortresses stands guard over the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands, with Chinese maritime militia and coast guard vessels regularly harassing Vietnamese and Filipino fishers.

It’s likely from one of these – perhaps Woody Island in the Paracels or Mischief Reef in the Spratlys – that the J-16 fighter flew from to intercept the Australian P-8.

“China will be hoping that foreign military aircraft faced with an ongoing threat of collision or damage will be gradually forced out of the South China Sea,” says Mr Layton. “If so, with China’s activities increasingly less challenged, other countries may gradually come to accept, or at least acquiesce to, China’s extraordinary territorial claims.”

The art of war

“The problem is that Xi has instructed his military to operate this way,” says ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge. “He seems to want to make the PLA such a risky, dangerous entity to approach that other forces will give it a wide berth for their own and the PLA’s safety.”

It’s a game of chicken.

At stake is the international rule of law.

And war.

“It’s Beijing saying the world – not just Australia and Canada – now must live with how the Chinese leadership chooses to use its military power. It’s trying to normalise its behaviour and force others to adjust in response,” Mr Shoebridge adds.

Chairman Xi has ordered the Chinese military to be “primed to fight at any second” and prepared to conduct “peacetime confrontational military operations”.

“So, the Canadian and Australian examples are not local Chinese commanders or even individual pilots acting on their own,” says Mr Shoebridge. “They are doing what Xi and the PLA high command want and expect.”

Such “confrontational military operations” are well underway.

Chinese fishing militia, supported by navy-controlled coast guard vessels, have been escalating harassment operations against the Philippines and Vietnamese boats in Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands.

Recent forays by Australian, British, German, Japanese and US warships through the international waters have also been met with mock combat aircraft attacks and warships imposing themselves as obstacles.

“The Chinese government can’t mention that China has no legitimacy … because its arguments were comprehensively rejected by a 2016 ruling in a case the Philippines brought against it. (This was) based on the international law China helped draft and then signed up to – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Mr Shoebridge says.

“So, its warplanes were enforcing rights China does not have in international airspace where every nation has the right to operate without harassment.”

Now it’s a matter of what comes next.

“Other aggressive actions may now be undertaken”, says Mr Layton, “possibly including regularly crowding of disputed areas of the South China Sea with massed naval forces, declaring Air Defence Identification Zones across specific grey-zone areas, radar targeting other nation’s naval warships and military aircraft, and periodically electronically jamming civil and military radars and jamming GPS.”

Fast and furious

Further details have emerged over the encounter between the RAAF P-8 Poseidon and the PLAF J-16 Flanker.

The PLAAF two-seat combat aircraft reportedly first flew very close alongside the Australian aircraft and dumped infrared decoy flares.

It then reportedly dove in front of the converted Boeing 737 airliner to drop thin threads of radar-jamming metallic foil – called chaff – in its path.

While not offensive weapons, these have the potential to damage jet turbine engines if enough of them are ingested through the air intakes.

The Australian Defence force reports the P-8 crew was forced to turn away to avoid a collision.

Australian defence analyst Mike Yeo identified the P-8 Poseidon – home-based at Adelaide’s Edinburgh Air Force facility – as aircraft number P-8A A47-008.

He then located the aircraft’s international air safety tracking data to reveal its course and behaviour. Records show it flying in international air space south-east of Scarborough Shoal – nowhere near recognised Chinese territory.

Beijing, however, claims the Poseidon was flying near the Paracel Islands – islands it seized from Vietnam during a short war in the 1970s

Australia has two RAAF P-8s operating out of Clark Airbase in the Philippines. They were participating in a decades-old practise of helping South-east Asian nations police their waterways and monitor international shipping.

P-8A A47-008 remained grounded for several days after the event, perhaps having its engines inspected for damage, with its companion taking up the flight schedule slack.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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