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Australia Accuses Chinese Jet of Intercepting Its Surveillance Plane and Endangering Crew

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: June 6, 2022
This photo taken on October 17, 2019 shows a J-16 fighter jet performing in the sky during the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Aviation Open Day in China's northeastern province of Jilin. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Australia’s Defense Ministry claims a Chinese jet’s “dangerous maneuver” and “reckless actions” placed the lives of its crew in danger during a routine surveillance mission over the South China Sea.

In a televised interview that came after similar Canadian reports, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said the Chinese J-16 was on patrol alongside the Australian P-8 when it suddenly released flares and cut in front of the reconnaissance plane. The statement added that the Chinese jet also released chaff that entered into one of the Australian aircraft’s engines — posing a severe safety risk.

Military planes usually release chaff — which are typically tiny strips of aluminum or zinc — as a deliberate countermeasure to confuse radar-guided missiles, but they can also be used to sabotage pursuing aircraft.

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“The J-16 aircraft flew very close to the side of the P-8 … in flying close to the side, it released flares,” Marles told reporters at Australia’s 9News. “The J-16 then accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front of the P-8 at a very close distance,” Marles said. 

Marles added that when the Chinese jet released chaff, the Australian crew tried to avoid it by quickly changing course, placing the lives of everyone onboard the aircraft in jeopardy. “At that moment [the Chinese jet] released a bundle of chaff, which contained small pieces of aluminum, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft. Quite obviously, this is very dangerous,” Marles said.

When ingested, chaff can damage a jet engine’s blades and in extreme instances can even shut it down. 

While the P-8 can still operate on only one of its two engines, the alleged incident would have forced it to return to base, effectively ending its patrol, Peter Layton, a former Australian Air Force officer who is now a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, told CNN. 

In a statement, Australia’s defense ministry said 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.”

Newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also said his government had raised the issue with Beijing. 

“This was not safe, what occurred, and we’ve made appropriate representations to the Chinese government expressing our concern,” Albanese said, adding that the Australian aircraft was “flying in accordance with international law, exercising the right to freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters, and airspace.” 

A repeating pattern

This is the second time in a week that Chinese aircraft have been accused of endangering the reconnaissance flights of other countries’ military. 

On June 1, Canada said Chinese warplanes buzzed its reconnaissance aircraft during surveillance operations to monitor North Korea for possible evasion of United Nations sanctions. 

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) said in a statement that in some instances the Chinese warplanes flew so close to their aircraft that the Canadian crew was forced to change course in order to avoid a collision.

“In these interactions, the People’s Liberation Army Force (PLAAF) aircraft did not adhere to international air safety norms,” the CAF said in the statement. “These interactions are unprofessional and/or put the safety of our Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) personnel at risk.”

Escalating tensions

Tensions between China and Australia have been uneasy for much of the year. 

In February, Australia accused a Chinese warship of using a laser to “illuminate” an Australian P-8 off the country’s north coast in a “dangerous and reckless” act. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, directing a laser at an aircraft during night time operations can damage the pilot’s sight and put the aircraft in jeopardy. 

The Chinese authorities responded by denying Australia’s allegations, claiming that its warship had acted in accordance with international maritime laws, and accused the Australian government of “maliciously spreading false information about China.”

Beijing has also placed much of the Asia-Pacific region on high alert after it signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands. The Pacific Island nation of fewer than 1 million people is located 1,240 miles northeast of Australia and switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Communist China in 2019 — an indicator of Beijing’s growing influence in the region. 

The security pact, which China and the Solomons confirmed on April 19, has elicited fears that the communist regime’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could eventually set up a base in the country. Although both governments have denied this possibility, a leaked draft of the deal revealed that Beijing had intentions of building a base there as early as 2020, and could send troops to the island nation at any time. 

An enhanced Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands would put it not only on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand but also in close proximity to Guam — which houses massive U.S. military bases.

On May 26, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi also began a 10-day visit to the region alongside a delegation of 20 members. The visit saw the Chinese diplomats meet with representatives from eight countries, and raised concerns of a comprehensive economic security deal between Beijing and several Pacific nations.