Australia has accused the Chinese military of a “dangerous manoeuvre” after one of its surveillance plans was intercepted in the South China Sea just days after the election of Anthony Albanese as prime minister.
The Australian defence department said a Chinese J-16 fighter intercepted a P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft during routine surveillance in international waters on May 26.
“The intercept resulted in a dangerous manoeuvre which posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew,” the department added.
The incident occurred five days after an Australian election in which relations with China featured prominently after three years of tension under the government of former prime minister Scott Morrison.
Albanese has maintained the tough line on China since taking office, stepping up efforts to counter its spread in the Pacific and calling for the end of Beijing’s punitive tariffs on Australian goods.
The prime minister told reporters on Sunday that the interception was “not safe” and that his government had complained to China. “We’ve made appropriate representations to the Chinese government expressing our concern at this,” he said.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said: “This is not the first time for Australian aircraft to be buzzed over [the] South China Sea, but a good sign [the] Australian Department of Defence is becoming more transparent about it.”
The encounter is the latest in a series of flash points between Australia and China. In February, a Chinese naval vessel used a laser against a surveillance plane off the north coast of Australia in what Morrison called an unprovoked “act of intimidation”.
Peter Dutton, the former defence minister who replaced Morrison as head of Australia’s conservative Liberal party, also revealed on the eve of the election that a Chinese surveillance vessel had come within 50 nautical miles of a naval communications base near the western tip of the country. The People’s Liberation Army ship was in international waters but Dutton said it was “unusual” that a Chinese vessel would head so far south and described it as an “act of aggression”.
Xiao Qian, China’s ambassador to Australia, has called for an easing of tension between the two countries during the election that peaked this year when Dutton told Australians to “prepare for war”.
Albanese, who has appointed deputy Labor leader Richard Marles as defence minister, has instead referred to “strategic competition” in the Indo-Pacific region as he grapples with how to deal with geopolitical tension with Australia’s biggest trading partner.