Close Encounters in the South China Sea

Alessandro Ponzetto | June 6th, 2022

With the diplomatic tours of both the Australian and Chinese Foreign Ministers having ended, there is a new flare up in tension between the two countries. During the weekend, there were reports of the interception of an Australian P-8 patrol aircraft from Chinese fighters in the South China Sea on May 26, the same day in which a Canadian aircraft reported a similar case.

In response to the incident, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles said Australia would not be deterred by the “very dangerous” incident, with the following quote:

“We have made representations to the Chinese government, but we will not be deterred from engaging in the activities, which we are entitled to under international law, in the future.”

Australia has been patrolling the South China Sea for decades, and this specific escalation is in line with the PLA’s recent interests. As reported earlier in May, a PLAN intelligence gathering ship sailed along the Western Coast of Australia, with a course that put the vessel in proximity to key bases.

This development is particularly concerning, also given historical precedents: back in 2001, an EP-3 collided with a Chinese fighter off the coast of Hainan, which sparked a standoff between China and the US. It was eventually resolved, with the crew of the US plane being flown back to the country (after been detained for 11 days) and with the dismantled US plane flown out of China.

Thankfully, no collision has occurred in this case, but tensions have nonetheless risen. While China has not officially confirmed nor denied the event, as in the case of the Canadian aircraft, theGlobal Times quoted analysts saying it was possible that the Australian aircraft trespassed on Chinese airspace or disrupted PLA maritime exercises in a “dangerous manner”.

Both seem highly unlikely:

  •          With regards to trespassing on Chinese airspace, it is difficult to believe this is the case. While the flight path of the aircraft in question is not available, it is safe to assume they stuck to international or friendly airspace. The only way for this to be true is a further extension of the Chinese claim, akin to the maritime counterpart
  •          With regards to the second claim, it is rather baffling because the PLA has not levied this accusation to the Japanese. Even earlier in May, the PLAN was carrying out exercises with Liaoning, their first aircraft carrier. In response, the JMSDF had Izumo, their de facto first aircraft carrier since WWII, shadow the Chinese task force from relatively close proximity.

Ultimately, the details of the incident are rather scant, which makes any specific commentary on the matter somewhat speculative. With this said, it is consistent with the increased assertiveness of China when it comes to its claims and renders the situation potentially more volatile.

All this comes at a rather tense time: Japan is now having the same level of attention Australia had last month, with a surveillance ship sailing through the Miyako Strait (between the Senkaku Islands and Okinawa), and increased activity from the PLA near the Japanese islands.

On top of this, the two US carriers in theatre (USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Ronald Reagan) are also in the vicinity, with their approximate position being east of the Philippines (per USNI).

The primary concern now is to avoid an incident between the two parties, although this would require direct communication between the respective militaries. As of now, it seems that there is limited direct communication between the two sides, further complicating matters.

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