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Chinese warplane intercepted Australia aircraft, says Canberra

Australia said Sunday that a Chinese Shenyang J-16 fighter had intercepted one of its reconnaissance planes in international airspace over the South China Sea region late last month. File photo by Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/EPA-EFE
Australia said Sunday that a Chinese Shenyang J-16 fighter had intercepted one of its reconnaissance planes in international airspace over the South China Sea region late last month. File photo by Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/EPA-EFE

June 5 (UPI) -- A Chinese fighter jet intercepted an Australian reconnaissance aircraft on a routine maritime surveillance flight in the South China Sea region late last month, Canberra said Sunday amid growing tensions between the two nations.

Australia's Department of Defense said in a statement that the incident occurred May 26 and involved a Chinese fighter jet harassing a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft in international airspace.

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Defense Minister Richard Marles said the Chinese jet flew close alongside the P-8 aircraft before releasing flares, after which it accelerated, cut across the nose of the P-8 and released a bundle of chaff.

According to the British government, chaff is a radar countermeasure used by military aircraft to avoid detection or attacks and usually consists of aluminum-coated glass fibre.

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Marles said the P-8 aircraft engine "ingested" some of these aluminum pieces.

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"Quite obviously this is very dangerous," he said, adding the crew of the P-8 returned the aircraft to its base with none reporting injury.

The ministry said it has raised concerns about the incident with Beijing.

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Marles explained the P-8 was intercepted while on a routine surveillance mission of the South China Sea that Canberra has been conducting within international law for decades.

"The South China Sea matters to Australia. It matters to Australia because most of our trade traverses the South China Sea," he said.

"And so to that end I want to make it also very clear that this incident will not deter Australia from continuing to engage in these activities, which are within our rights and international law, to assure there is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, because that is fundamentally in our nation's interest."

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters Sunday in a press conference that they are "concerned" about the incident.

Relations between the two countries have soured in recent years with Australia criticizing China over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as its human rights record.

Australia was a main force in a campaign that led to the World Health Organization launching an independent probe of the COVID-19's origins in China as well as took measures against Beijing over its imposition of a draconian national security law on Hong Kong.

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Seemingly in response, Beijing imposed stiff tariffs on Canberra barely and wine, igniting a trade war between the two.

More recently, Australia in February accused a Chinese warship of shining a laser at an Australian surveillance aircraft.

Australia has also made several military moves that appear an attempt to counter China's growing aggression in the region.

In March, Canberra announced it would spend more on its defense. Then last month, it announced it was fast-tracking a long-rang missile purchase as well as entered into a tri-party pact with the United States and Britain on the development of hypersonic weapons.

Meanwhile, China has been pursuing security agreements in the region and late last month announced one with the Solomon Islands, which attracted concern from Australia.

Over the weekend, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed Canberra for the downturn in relations, stating it was caused by "some political force in Australia" that "insists on viewing China as a rival rather than a partner and framing China's development as a threat rather than an opportunity."

"The solution is looking at China and China-Australia relations in a sensible and positive way, uphold mutual respect, seek common ground while shelving differences and create the necessary conditions for bringing bilateral relations back on the normal track," he said, according to a statement from the ministry.

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Albanese responded that he seeks peaceful relations with all neighbors but will also recognize that challenges exist.

"We have strategic competition in the region," he said. "What we need to do is to make sure that we have competition, recognize that it's there, without catastrophe."

The incident over the South China Sea occurred days after Canada accused a Chinese warplane of harassing its aircraft patrolling international airspace as part of a United Nations Security Council mission to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

China has also been applying pressure on Taiwan via frequent aircraft incursions amid rising tensions between the Washington and Beijing centered on the self-governing island.

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