China’s Dangerous Games in the Skies
Recent reports by Canadian officials of Chinese fighter aircraft interceptions of Aurora surveillance aircraft, using what have at times been unsafe and dangerous manoeuvres that brought the aircraft as close as 20 feet, are troubling. The increasing risk to our RCAF aircrew, a risk history has shown to be very real, was unwarranted and indicates that more challenges lie ahead.
Deployed under Canada’s Operation Neon and flying out of Kadena, Japan, our aircraft was making another in a series of periodic Aurora, frigate, and submarine contributions to the multi-national surveillance effort to counter North Korea’s evasion of maritime sanctions. The UN Security Council’s concerns about nuclear and missile tests by North Korea led it to adopt the sanctions, with all 15 members voting for the Council’s resolutions, China included. It makes little sense that Chinese fighters harassed a Canadian aircraft conducting surveillance in support of Security Council resolutions that China approved. Yet that the harassment persisted despite Canadian concerns having been repeatedly raised through diplomatic channels with Beijing, without apparent response, means it was intended.
Beyond the attempt to hamper operations allowed under international law, that harassment is troubling because it is so reminiscent of Chinese aircraft intercepts of US Navy aircraft in 2001. The conduct of their fighter aircraft was characterized as unsafe then as well, and it eventually led to the collision of a Chinese fighter with a US Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft – a variant of the same airframe as our Aurora – one that was flying from Kadena out over international waters more than 100 kilometers distant from China’s Hainan Island.
The Chinese pilot paid with his life for his unsafe actions, and his plane was lost. The US Navy EP-3 was damaged so severely that it could easily have been lost with all aboard, but the pilot was fortunate to have had sufficient altitude to recover from a harrowing descent and then execute an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The 24 member US Navy aircrew was questioned and detained for ten days before being released following diplomatic negotiations. The Chinese would not allow the US to repair their aircraft for flight, so several months later the disassembled EP-3 was loaded into two Antonov aircraft and flown back to America where it was eventually rebuilt.
The 2001 event led to loss of life and diplomatic difficulties but was merely the most dramatic in a series of demonstrations – in the air and on the sea – of the Chinese intent for relations in the region and of their approach to international law that spoke far louder than any speech about regional cooperation. Western navies took note.
Now they are doing us the favour of again making plain their intent. Their attempts at diverting an Aurora from its flight path have been far more of a challenge than the radio hails requiring that Canadian frigates change their routing in international waters, but the intent is the same. The Chinese conception of freedom of the seas and the airspace above apparently does not include Canada, and no matter what freedoms international law allows all nations, China’s actions have shown their desire to bring regional waters their control.
That message was reinforced when an Australian P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft operating over international waters in the South China Sea – much of which China claims as their sovereign waters – was similarly harassed on 26 May. After flying close alongside the P-8, a Chinese fighter then moved ahead and released aluminum chaff into its path, causing some to be ingested by the P-8’s engines, all actions the Australian defence ministry described as dangerous to the P-8’s safety.
None of these seem the actions of a nation inclined towards cooperation in regional security maters, rather their actions seem adversarial. Given our broad interests in the region, including in the security that underpins trade and prosperity, China’s actions and strategic intent should be helping inform the development of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and, as importantly, shaping the ongoing defence review’s consideration of the military capabilities that will be needed in the decades ahead as well.
VAdm (ret’d) Drew Robertson is a former commander of the Royal Canadian Navy and a board member of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. These views are his own.