Beijing has questioned a minister’s account of an incident involving a Chinese fighter jet and a RAAF surveillance aircraft, but the Australian government is standing by the details.
Defence Minister Richard Marles revealed on Sunday a Chinese J-16 aircraft flew dangerously close to a RAAF P-8A Poseidon conducting routine surveillance in international airspace on May 26.
While flying close to the side, the J-16 released flares then accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front of the Australian aircraft at very close distance.
The Chinese aircraft then released a bundle of chaff which contained small pieces of aluminium, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft.
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The Poseidon then ended its mission and returned to base.
The Australian government has raised concerns with Beijing saying it had threatened the safety of the crew in what was a “very dangerous” incident.
Mr Marles says Australia will continue to conduct surveillance and freedom of navigation missions in the area as the HMAS Parramatta heads towards the South China Sea.
But Mr Marles remained coy on whether the incident would require bigger deployments on patrol operations through the sea.
“All of the work that our servicemen and women do carries danger with it but we will continue to engage in our activities in the South China Sea because it’s a body of water that matters to us,” he told the ABC.
However, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times said the Australian aircraft “likely made provocative moves”.
“It is possible that the Australian P-8 was about to enter or even did trespass on Chinese airspace, or it is also possible that the aircraft disrupted PLA maritime exercises in a dangerous manner,” the newspaper quoted analysts as saying.
“If the Chinese aircraft did use flares and chaff, it is possible that the Australian P-8 used its jamming pod to lase the Chinese aircraft, triggering the latter’s self-defence system.”
An angry editorial in the Global Times on Monday accused Australia of “deliberately” concealing key details of the incident.
“Where exactly in the South China Sea is the area in which the incident occurred? How far is it from the Chinese islands and reefs in the region? What is their purpose here?” the article reads.
“Furthermore, what did the Australian military aircraft do before the intercept.”
Mr Marles will not meet with his Chinese counterpart when he travels to the Shangri-La defence summit in Singapore at the end of the week.
He is due to meet with United States Defence Minister Lloyd Austin, who is addressing the conference about the country’s Indo-Pacific defence policy, while China’s Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe will speak about Beijing’s vision for the Asia-Pacific.
Mr Marles said a rules-based order through the Indo-Pacific and freedom of navigation through the South China Sea was in Australia’s vital interests, including for the country’s trade security.
“It’s really important that we are asserting our rights in the South China Sea, because it goes to our national interest,” he told Sky News.
“In asserting the global rules-based order in respect of the South China Sea and our government, our defence force has made its displeasure known (to the Chinese).”
Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley said the former Morrison government had been “very strong on China”.
“Sometimes we were criticised for this … but it was an issue that we never took a backward step on,” she told Sky News.
“It’s important that we see exactly the same approach from the prime minister.”