A Chinese J-16 fighter jet “dangerously” intercepted an Australian surveillance plane over the South China Sea on May 26, Australia said on Sunday. The Australian Department of Defence said that the Chinese aircraft had flown “very close” in front of its P-8 surveillance plane and released a bundle of chaff, normally used to confuse radar systems. Australia said its plane was in international airspace.
The incident occurred after Canada reported similarly dangerous encounters with Chinese military aircraft over waters near North Korea in April and last month. Chinese jets on several occasions flew so close to Canada’s CP-140 Aurora aircraft that it was forced to quickly alter course to avoid a collision, the Canadian Department of National Defence said.
The incidents occurred in international airspace while conducting routine missions, which China itself conducts for its own purposes. A report on Friday last week by the Washington Post said that China and Russia had conducted joint drills in waters off Japan the week before. A report by al-Jazeera on Sunday said that last month, “a Chinese intelligence ship was tracked off Australia’s west coast within 50 nautical miles [92.6km] of a sensitive defense facility.”
China typically demands respect for its interests from the international community while ignoring the interests of other nations. Reporting on the recent intercepts of the Australian and Canadian aircraft, state-run newspaper the Global Times on Sunday wrote that the Chinese military “recently dealt with close-in reconnaissance and provocative activities by surveillance planes from Canada and Australia.”
“By accusing the Chinese warplanes of threatening flight safety, the two members of the Five Eyes complained first while being the ones who are guilty in the first place,” the Global Times said regarding the pilots’ allegations.
Herein lays the challenge of dealing with an increasingly aggressive and expansionist China: Beijing is incapable of interacting rationally with other nations in accordance with international standards.
When a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 ruled that the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) are not islands, but rather low-tide elevations, and that China’s development of the features violated the Philippines’ rights to its exclusive economic zone, China simply ignored the ruling. With China now setting its sights on Oceania, encounters in the air with it are likely to become more dangerous and tense. Taiwan, the US, Australia, Japan and other like-minded nations that operate in the region must prepare for such contingencies and cooperate on response measures.
It seems that China feels more emboldened to act aggressively toward militaries in the region when those countries are operating alone. Conflicts virtually never occur during multi-nation joint drills. While conducting reconnaissance missions, countries should make use of regional alliances such as the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the AUKUS security pact between the Australia, the UK and the US, and defense agreements between the US and regional countries, including Japan and South Korea.
Taiwan could also consider working with like-minded countries on missions in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region by installing radar and other communications infrastructure on outlying areas such as Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) and the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島), and sharing the intelligence. It could also station aircraft on those islands to be dispatched to escort allies’ reconnaissance missions.
Greater cooperation between like-minded countries would send a clear message to Beijing.
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