‘A dangerous act’: how a Chinese fighter jet intercepted an RAAF aircraft and what happens next

The Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has denounced an incident in which a Chinese fighter plane forced an Australian plane into a dangerous manoeuvre. China’s actions were “an act of aggression and a dangerous act”, Albanese told reporters in Jakarta on Monday evening.

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What do we know about what happened?

The Australian government published a statement on Sunday saying that on 26 May 2022, “a RAAF P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during a routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region”. The Defence statement added: “The intercept resulted in a dangerous manoeuvre which posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew.”

The defence minister, Richard Marles, did not reveal the exact location of the incident, or exactly how close the planes came to each other – but he did outline further details at a press conference:

“What occurred was that the J-16 aircraft flew very close to the side of the P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft,” Marles said. “In flying close to the side, it released flares, the J-16 then accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front of the P-8 at very close distance. 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.”

Is it legal?

Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, told Guardian Australia: “Australian aircraft have an unquestionable right to fly in international airspace, as recognised by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1944 Chicago Convention. If this was international airspace then China’s interference with the RAAF P-8 is a breach of international law. Australia’s conduct in areas beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial sea – that is, whether it was surveillance or not – is irrelevant.”

Is this an isolated incident?

Not exactly. Last week, Canada accused Chinese air force pilots of unprofessional and risky behaviour during encounters with Canadian planes in international airspace, while Canada was enforcing UN sanctions against North Korea (reportedly in the East China Sea). The Canadian armed forces said the People’s Liberation Army air force “did not adhere to international air safety norms” on several occasions and put the safety of personnel at risk.

Dr Euan Graham, a maritime security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said it was his understanding that there may have been a similar incident in 2020. “My understanding is that has happened before above the South China Sea, that there have been unsafe intercepts. I’m not aware of details of that, other than that Australia did protest to the foreign ministry and the foreign ministry basically said we don’t know anything about that,” Graham said.

However, Australia’s defence department did not respond to questions on Monday about how many air interceptions have occurred in the past.

Australian ships sailing through the South China Sea have also previously been tailed by or interacted with the Chinese military. Graham said it was “a slower moving game at sea” whereas confrontations in the air had a higher potential for a miscalculation.

What does this say about how China is asserting its interests?

Rothwell said this question was difficult to answer without knowing the precise location of the incident. “The P-8 could have been flying adjacent to a Chinese claimed artificial island over which Australia does not recognise any Chinese entitlement to a territorial sea and as such the freedom of overflight would apply. China would counter by saying this is an area where they can assert a legitimate territorial sea and Australian aircraft cannot enter. So the matter could be a simple issue of an Australian verses a Chinese interpretation of the relevant airspace.”

Graham thinks China may be testing the resolve of US allies, noting that Beijing was “making life difficult for unarmed surveillance aircraft both from Canada and Australia” but was “not reacting in the same way to US aircraft when they are doing their surveillance operations”. He said the actions sent “a very clear message that China doesn’t want foreign militaries operating on, under or above the waters around its coastline, especially the waters that it claims sovereignty over in the South China Sea”. That was consistent with Beijing’s long-term strategy to weaken the US alliance system.

Has there been any official response by China?

China’s foreign ministry responded on Monday evening, saying China would not allow any country to violate China’s sovereignty and security and harm peace and stability in the South China Sea using “freedom of navigation” as excuse.

Earlier, the state-run Global Times published an article quoting analysts as saying the PLA “displayed its preparedness, capability and determination in safeguarding national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity”. A separate editorial cited “data” as showing “that from February 24 to March 11, Australian military aircraft have visited the East China Sea north of the island of Taiwan six times this year to conduct close-in reconnaissance activities”. The editorial in the Global Times said: “No one can act as Washington’s ‘goon’ while making a fortune from China. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Why does Australia care about the South China Sea?

Under both parties, the Australian government has long argued it is in Australia’s interests to assert freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and for international law to be followed. Marles mounted that argument again on Monday afternoon, saying Australia as a trading nation has an interest in export lanes remaining open. China, notably, has not accepted the 2016 ruling of an arbitral tribunal rejecting the basis of its historic rights claims in the South China Sea – a stance by Beijing that Australia has long criticised.

What does it mean for a ‘reset’ in the relationship with China?

Graham said he welcomed the increasing preparedness of Australia and Canada to “name and shame when these incidents do happen”. He said that provided a more factual basis to the debate, and showed the US allies were “moving beyond reflexive sensitivity about saying anything public might get a reaction from China, because I think clearly, international law is on the side of Australia and Canada here”.

He argued China was trying to put “psychological pressure on a new government and a new minister” and it “gives the lie to the idea that there’s any real interest in favourably resetting relationships from Beijing to Canberra”.

Will Marles meet China’s defence minister in Singapore?

Marles will be heading to the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore later this week. China’s minister of national defence, Wei Fenghe, is scheduled to address the conference on 12 June.

Graham said the conference could give the new minister the opportunity “to at least have a courtesy greeting with his Chinese counterpart in Singapore at the end of this week”. Marles said on Monday he was not seeking a bilateral meeting with Wei.

A spokesperson for Marles said he had “not received a formal invitation to meet with his counterpart” at the dialogue, but added: “The Australian government has said that it welcomes the opportunity to resume ministerial dialogue with China.”