Australia says China threatened plane over South China Sea

BEIJING (AP) — Australia on Sunday said a Chinese fighter jet carried out dangerous maneuvers threatening the safety of one of its maritime surveillance planes over the South China Sea and forcing it to return to the base.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his government expressed concern to China over the May 26 incident, which the Defense Ministry said took place in international airspace where a Chinese J-16 intercepted a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft on routine patrol.

Defense Minister Richard Marles said the Chinese J-16 flew very close to the Australian plane and released flares and chaff that were ingested by the engines of the Poseidon, a converted Boeing 737-800.

“The J-16 … accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front of the P-8 at very close distance,” he told reporters in Melbourne. “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.”

He said the crew of the P-8 responded professionally and returned the aircraft to its base.

There was no official response Sunday from Beijing.

Such incidents are not unprecedented. A collision between a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese air force jet in April 2001 resulted in the death of the Chinese pilot and the 10-day detention of the U.S. air crew by China.

Relations between Australia and China have been poor for years after Beijing imposed trade barriers and refused high-level exchanges in response to Canberra enacting rules targeting foreign interference in its domestic politics.

Australia and others have also sought to block Chinese inroads into the South Pacific, including Beijing’s signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that could result in China’s stationing of troops and ships in the archipelago, which lies less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the Australian coast.

Last month’s incident comes amid increasingly aggressive behavior by the Chinese military in border areas and at sea targeting planes, ships and land forces from India, Canada, the United States and the Philippines.

In February, Australia said a Chinese navy ship fired a laser also at one of its Poseidon surveillance planes, illuminating it while in flight over Australia’s northern approaches and endangering the safety of the crew.

China claims the South China Sea virtually in its entirety and has been steadily ratcheting up pressure against other countries with claims to parts of the strategic waterway. That has included construction of military facilities on artificial islands and the harassment of foreign fishing vessels and military missions in the air and international sea.

Earlier this year, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino said China has fully militarized at least three of its island holdings, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and military aircraft.

The U.S. and its allies have consistently challenged the Chinese claims by staging patrols and military exercises in the area, provoking angry responses from Beijing despite agreements aimed at reducing tensions.

“We’re operating completely within our rights … most of our trade traverses the South China Sea,” Marles said. “This incident will not deter Australia from continuing to engage in these activities, which are within our rights and international law to assure that there is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, because that is fundamentally in our nation’s interest.”

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