WATCH: Canada, Australia blast ‘irresponsible' Chinese pilots, Beijing issues warning
Reports of Chinese fighter jet pilots “buzzing” Canadian and Australian planes have broader implications for countering Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific region and efforts to enforce sanctions on North Korea.
Experts say China’s behaviour in the skies above international waters is another example of its “bullying” tactics as it seeks to claim more territory beyond its traditional borders.
“It’s not out of character for the new China that we’ve been seeing,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy and the University of Alberta’s China Institute.
“Under Xi Jinping we’ve seen a much more aggressive China, and we’re seeing it play out in all kinds of ways. … It has many layers to it, and this buzzing of Western planes is one more.”
The dispute over exactly what constitutes Chinese airspace also risks international efforts to monitor United Nations sanctions on North Korea, those experts warn, further ratcheting up tensions in an already tense region of the world.
Global News first reported, citing multiple government sources, that Chinese jets have repeatedly flown so close to a Canadian surveillance plane in the Asia-Pacific region that Canadian pilots could make eye contact with Chinese pilots, who have sometimes shown their middle fingers.
Sources told Global News there have been approximately 60 of these types of intercepts with Chinese fighter jets since Christmas. Over two dozen have been deemed dangerous.
On Saturday, the Australian government confirmed Chinese fighter planes intercepted an Australian aircraft in the South China Sea Region late last month during a routine surveillance activity. An Australian defence spokesperson confirmed to Global News that flares were deployed into the Australian plane’s path, causing damage.
China’s defence ministry said in a statement Monday that Canadian military jets have stepped up reconnaissance and “provocations” against China “under the pretext” of implementing UN Security Council resolutions, endangering China’s national security.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later responded, accusing the Chinese of “irresponsible and provocative” actions that “are putting people at risk” while interfering with a UN mission.
Here’s what you need to know about the conflict.
Sanctions against North Korea over its missile and nuclear weapon tests have been in place since 2006 and have been reinforced and expanded multiple times since then. The sanctions largely focus on restricting foreign trade with the rogue nation.
The sanctions call for continued monitoring of trade routes around the Korean Peninsula to ensure countries — particularly members of the UN Security Council — aren’t helping North Korea evade those sanctions, which have damaged the country’s economy.
The Canadian CP-140 Aurora plane that has been buzzed by Chinese jets is currently taking part in Operation Neon, part of UN efforts to monitor those sanctions. The U.S. and Japan have also participated in the surveillance.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a media briefing on Monday that the UN Security Council “has never authorized any country to carry out military surveillance in the seas and airspace of other countries in the name of enforcing sanctions.”
Experts say that statement is misleading, and relies on the international community recognizing China’s claims over parts of the region that lie beyond its borders, including Taiwan and other disputed areas.
Under international law, Chinese airspace only extends 22 kilometres off the coast. Yet James Trottier, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and former career Canadian diplomat, says China is likely relying on its own, much broader “aircraft defence identification zone” that covers most of the East China Sea — a declaration that the West has rejected.
“The lack of consistency in applicable zones could lead to confusion and danger,” he said in an interview. “It runs the risk of making an insecure area even more insecure.”
A spokesperson for Norway’s UN mission, which chairs the Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea, told Global News last week they could not speak to the plane buzzing reports, but added it takes “any possible violations of the sanctions regime seriously.”
China — which has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council that gives it veto power — has said it has enforced sanctions on North Korea, but continues to support the rogue nation economically and financially. It joined Russia last month in vetoing a U.S.-led push for further sanctions in response to renewed missile tests.
McCuaig-Johnston says it’s possible China is acting aggressively toward surveillance operations because it is evading the sanctions itself. Chinese ships are suspected of taking part in illicit fuel transfers between ships at sea to help supply North Korea, an act that the Canadian Aurora plane was tasked with monitoring this spring.
“What is it that they don’t want Canadian pilots to see?” she wondered.
China has increased its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region over the last two years, particularly around Taiwan. It has stepped up drills and manoeuvres around the island, and confirmed on Wednesday that it has conducted a combat “readiness patrol” in the sea and air in recent days.
Retired Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, a former Canadian Forces commander, says Canada and other countries involved in monitoring the region have no choice but to continue with the surveillance flights, as pulling back would mean giving in to China.
“The last thing you want to do is be intimidated by such behaviour, because then you’re giving into the bully and it won’t stop,” he told Global News.
“You can’t let the bullies push you around.”
Meantime, Trottier says the issue of what airspace China controls must be addressed by the UN Security Council to ensure boundaries are clearly drawn.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said last week that the issue of China’s behaviour will be raised with the council.
Experts have warned the behaviour of the Chinese pilots risks a mid-air collision that could lead to an international incident between Canada and China.
McCuaig-Johnston points to China’s statement — which said any “grave consequences” of the intercepts will be Canada’s responsibility — as proof it is “setting up” for such a possibility.
She adds it’s further proof that Canada needs to commit to a policy for countering China’s aggression that has “teeth,” and join its allies in standing up to Beijing.
“We’ve seen how countries have come together in opposition to Russia” over its war in Ukraine, she said.
“China is looking at that very closely, and if we start to come together like that to confront this bullying from China, I think we’ll get some progress toward our own objectives.”
— with files from Mercedes Stephenson, Marc-Andre Cossette, the Canadian Press and Reuters.
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