A Chinese fighter jet that intercepted an RAAF maritime surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea flew dangerously close, releasing flares and aluminium “chaff”.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said some of the bundle of chaff, which contains small pieces of aluminium, were ingested into the engine of the Australian P-8 aircraft.
Mr Marles said the Federal Government had expressed concern with its counterparts in Beijing over the “very dangerous” May 26 incident but declined to reveal how the Chinese Government had responded.
“What occurred was that the J-16 (Chinese) aircraft flew very close to the side of the P-8 (Australian) maritime surveillance aircraft,” he said.
“In flying close to the side, it released flares.
This is very dangerous.
“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.”
Earlier, the Department of Defence revealed a RAAF P-8 aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter jet over the disputed region during “routine maritime surveillance” in international airspace.
The department said surveillance activities were conducted in accordance with international law and the intercept resulted in “a dangerous manoeuvre which posed a safety threat” to the Australian crew.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese carefully chose his words when he confirmed the incident at a press conference, declining to clarify whether the Australian aircraft was forced to take evasive action.
“We are concerned about this incident. We have expressed those concerns through appropriate channels,” Mr Albanese said.
“I won’t make any further comment on it, other than to say that in the Australian Government’s view and the Defense Department’s view, this was not safe, what occurred, and we’ve made appropriate representations to the Chinese Government expressing our concern.”
The PM was questioned if the Chinese Government was sending mixed signals after its Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi overnight said political forces in Australia had viewed China as a rival rather than a partner.
“We have strategic competition in the region. What we need to do is to make sure that we have competition that recognises that it’s there without catastrophe,” Mr Albanese said.
“I certainly seek peaceful relations with all of our neighbors, recognising the challenges, though, which are there.”
After arriving in Jakarta later on Sunday for a diplomatic visit, Mr Albanese is set to speak to Indonesia Prime Minister Joko Widodo in a bilateral leaders’ meeting about China’s influence in the region.
This includes reports that Timor-Leste has signed a series of deals with China that cover areas including healthcare, agriculture, media communications and economic cooperation.
Mr Albanese said his team had been “reaching out” to its counterparts at Timor-Leste but had not yet held a one-on-one discussion.
Mr Marles said the Australian crew responded “professionally and in a manner which would make us all proud” and defended the surveillance activity, which he said had been regularly undertaken “for decades”.
I want to make it very clear this incident will not deter Australia to engage in these activities which are within our rights at international law.
“Other countries do the same,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.
“We are operating completely within our rights in international law because the South China Sea matters to Australia because most of our trade traverses the South China Sea.
“We are deeply invested in the rights of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“And so, to that end, I want to make it very clear this incident will not deter Australia to engage in these activities which are within our rights at international law to assure there is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea that is fundamentally in our nation’s interests.”
The developments come after former defence minister Peter Dutton described a Chinese military spy ship’s close tracking of the WA coast as “unprecedented” and as an “aggressive act”.
This prompted Mark McGowan to renew his war of words with Mr Dutton, now the Opposition and Liberal Leader, with the Premier saying he did not believe the Chinese ship was being threatening.