A Royal Australian Air Force Boeing P-8A Poseidon conducting a touch-and-go at Canberra Airport in November 2020. Photo: Wikipedia

The publication of one of Australia’s leading conservative strategic think-tanks, the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, has posted a seriously flawed article. It criticizes China’s actions regarding an Australian intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) flight “near” it and proposes a “regional risk management response” via the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). 

The article asserts that the issue of China’s response to the Australian probe was not about “flying through the door but near to it” and implied that China was objecting to a “violation” of its discredited historic claim to much of the South China Sea.

The problem is that neither the article nor the Australian Department of Defense revealed the flight path of the ISR probe, the location of the incident and what it was doing, and this is critical to the question of fault. If the author knows these details he should share them. Otherwise his views are speculative.

Here is what we know – and what we need to know before drawing conclusions.

On June 5, the Australian Defense Department stated that 10 days earlier on May 26 “a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8A maritime surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during a routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region.”

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said the Chinese aircraft flew very close to the P-8A, released flares, and then cut across its nose and released a “bundle of chaff” that was ingested by the P-8A’s engines. Australia said this was “dangerous” and “threatened the safety of the aircraft and crew.” 

China’s Defense Ministry responded that “the Australian military aircraft seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security and the countermeasures taken by the Chinese military were reasonable and lawful.” 

The action of the Chinese jet was dangerous, but was it justified? If the behavior was provoked by a violation of Chinese and international law, the simple solution is to cease the activity that provokes that response, not do more of it.

To determine the “right” and “wrong” of this incident we need to know the flight path of the Australian P-8A, the exact location of the incident, what it was doing, and why. 

Australia’s reluctance to make these details known, especially the route and location of the incident, and the delay of 10 days in reporting the incident raise suspicion. If it occurred in “international airspace” as Australia and the article allege, then it would be in Australia’s interest to specify these details.

If the P-8A flew over China’s claimed high-tide features or its 12-nautical-mile (nm) territorial sea around each, then it clearly violated China’s claimed sovereignty. Otherwise it gets legally murky.

If it was over waters enclosed by China’s claimed baselines around the Paracels, or within 12nm from those baselines, but not within 12nm of high-tide features, then Australia can claim that it was in “international airspace” while China may claim it was over its waters.

What was the Poseidon aircraft doing and why? Even if it was flying over China’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ), there are some restrictions on its behavior. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that a user state must pay due regard to another nation’s (in this case China’s) rights and duties in the EEZ.

China had just completed a large military exercise in waters south of Hainan Island for which it issued a navigation warning. The likely mission of the Australian P-8A was to gather intelligence on Chinese warships and perhaps their land-to-sea communications while returning to their bases.

China has a very sensitive naval base at Yulin on southern Hainan that harbors some of its nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapons-capable submarines that may have been participating in the exercises.

The P-8 can drop sonobuoys to gather information on the performance capabilities and signatures of surface vessels and to locate and track submarines. The main advantage of submarines is stealth. If the P-8A was attempting to “out” a submarine, particularly a nuclear-powered and nuclear-capable one, China may have seen that as a threat, or at the very least an “unfriendly” act.

The article also cites as “unsafe” the penetration of Malaysia’s EEZ by a Chinese military aircraft off Sabah “without prior advice to Malaysia.” But isn’t that what the Australian Poseidon did vis-à-vis China?

The article goes on to propose and justify as a remedy to China’s “unsafe flying” FPDA drone surveillance of the disputed South China Sea. But it is unclear why China would agree to such a “formal risk management initiative” proposed by an alliance targeting its practices. 

The article suggests that Australia lead, build and support such a network of maritime surveillance drones. It claims this would make “regional burden sharing feasible.”

But it does not seem that Australia, being outside the region, would bear the same degree of direct military and economic risk of antagonizing China. This is just a proposal to put Malaysia and Singapore on the “front lines” of the West’s fight with China.

The article recommends the use of Sky Guardian drones because given “their very low performance, they are inherently non-provocative and thus more non-confrontational.” But slow-motion spying is not necessarily less provocative.

Moreover, the proposed surveillance would cover Malaysia’s EEZ. But beyond that there might be objections. Indonesia and Vietnam may not welcome foreign surveillance of their EEZs. It obviously occurs, but publicly welcoming it is another matter. Any effort to focus on China’s military activities would expose their own assets, and they may not want to do that.

Indeed, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Southeast Asian neighbors have a troubled history, and there are limits as to what intelligence they would be willing to share. This applies to some Southeast Asian countries regarding  Australia. 

This proposal and its assumptions need to go back to the reality drawing board. 

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.