Incident Occurs Between Australian Helicopter and PLAAF Aircraft in Yellow Sea

On May 6th, the Australian Defence Ministry (ADM) released a statement about an interaction that occurred between the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) helicopter and a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft. The incident occurred on May 4th, when a PLAAF jet aircraft intercepted and released flares approximately 984 feet (300 meters) in front of the MH-60R as the jet was 197 feet (60 meters) higher. The MH-60R was launched from the HMAS Hobart, the lead vessel of the Hobart-class air warfare destroyer. Both the HMAS Hobart and the MH-60R were sailing in international waters in the Yellow Sea, conducting activities related to Operation Argos, “Australia’s contribution to the international effort to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.”

The “unsafe manoeuvre” resulted in no injuries or damage to the crew or helicopter, but it still posed a risk to the aircraft and personnel involved. The statement ended by pointing out that “Australia expects all countries, including China, to operate their militaries in a professional and safe manner.” On May 9th, the British Royal Air Force Chief of Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton, urged Australian military officials to release any images or videos they have of incidents between the country and China. The goal of the releases, said Knighton, would be to show the international community China’s aggressive actions in the region. Furthermore, Knighton said that the releases would also allow Australia to more effectively push back against the disinformation China publishes about the incident.

China’s Response

China responded to the ADM’s statement about the May 4th incident through statements released by its Foreign Affairs and National Defense Ministries. On May 7th, the Foreign Affairs Ministry (FAM) released a statement in response to a question asked by a Reuters reporter during the ministry’s daily press conference. Spokesperson Lin Jian said that the “truth is that the Australian warship and aircraft deliberately approached China’s airspace to cause trouble and provocation, jeopardizing China’s air and sea security under the banner of implementing United Nations Security Council resolutions.” Lin said that “for the purpose of warning and reminding,” the Chinese military took “necessary measures” to deal with the situation at the scene, and so the operations were “lawful, compliant, professional, and safe.” Furthermore, the spokesperson said that China also lodged solemn representations regarding Australia’s risk-taking practices and urged the country to “immediately stop provocation and hype and avoid causing misunderstandings and miscalculations.”

China’s National Defense Ministry statement regarding the May 4th incident in Yellow Sea

The National Defense Ministry (NDM) also released a statement on May 7th about the incident in a similar matter to the FAM. Ministry Spokesperson, Senior Colonel Zhang Xiaogang, said that China “firmly opposes Australia’s claim because the country is confused about what is right and wrong and should take the blame.” Zhang said that the Hobart sent three shipborne helicopters to conduct close reconnaissance of and harass a People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) ship formation conducting a training exercise from May 3rd to 4th. The PLAN issued warnings and expelled a helicopter from the waters where the formation was training, and Zhang said the operations were “justified, reasonable, professional, safe, and fully in line with international law and practice.” Zhang said that China calls on Australia “to respect China’s sovereignty and security concerns, stop spreading false narratives, strictly regulate the actions of its naval and air forces, and cease all dangerous and provocative actions so as not to jeopardize the overall situation of military relations between China and Australia.”

Analysis

The May 4th incident between the PLAAF aircraft and the RAN helicopter likely occurred because the PLAN believed that the MH-60R was monitoring the training exercise. However, the use of flares by the PLAAF aircraft shows China’s continued rationalization for using aggressive actions to prevent aircraft or vessels from freely operating near its territorial waters. The incident involving the PLAAF jet and the RAN MH-60R was the latest to occur between the Australian and Chinese militaries. In November 2023, an incident occurred in the Sea of Japan between the Anzac-class frigate, the HMAS Toowoomba, and the CNS Ningbo, a Sovremenny destroyer. The Toowoomba stopped to remove fishing nets from its propellers and sent out radio messages informing surrounding vessels of the operation to remain clear.

However, the Chinese vessel sailed closer to the Toowoomba even after it acknowledged messages and signals informing area vessels of the operation. The destroyer then activated its hull-mounted sonar after divers entered the water to clear the nets. The vessel’s captain suspended the operation, and the divers were immediately pulled from the water due to the danger posed by the operating sonar. Reports indicate that at least one of the divers received minor injuries to their ears from exposure. China blamed Australia for the November 2023 incident because the Toowomba was allegedly operating in waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands.

China’s rationalization of using flares to expel the MH-60R from the area fits into the country’s continued rationalization of using aggressive actions to prevent countries from freely operating in waters near its territorial boundaries. For example, Lin mentioned that Australia “deliberately approached China’s airspace” in the leadup to the incident. Furthermore, Zhang’s comments also did not indicate that the MH-60R entered China’s territorial airspace, only that it harassed the ships involved in the exercise in the leadup to the incident. Both comments indicate that the PLAN did not want the MH-60R or the Hobart to sail or operate near the exercise area, even if both were in international waters. The PLAN believed that the Hobart and MH-60R were in the area to spy on the exercise rather than to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

Another piece of evidence that points to China rationalizing its aggressive actions are the statements from the NDM and FAM to describe the encounters between Australian and Chinese vessels. Both Lin and Zhang described the release of flares in the helicopter’s flightpath as justified and complied with international law and practices. China used similar wording to justify the incident that occurred in November 2023, with NDM Spokesperson Wu Qian stating that the Ningbo abided by international laws and norms. The FAM Spokesperson, Mao Ning, also made a statement using similar wording regarding the Chinese military’s conduct in the maritime domain. The spokesperson’s comments point to China attempting to normalize aggressive actions in both its territorial waters and the adjacent international waters.

Furthermore, the actions also indicate that China is likely institutionalizing its aggressive behavior to rewrite international conduct on the open seas in its favor. By codifying standards that favor it, China has greater leeway to take similarly aggressive actions in other areas that it considers its territorial waters. For example, China can further justify its aggressive actions in the South China Sea by saying they are normal under the new international standards. The institutionalization would also allow China greater leeway to use similar aggressive actions in confronting Japan over the Senkaku Islands dispute. For example, China could use the new standards to justify aggressive behaviors like firing warning shots to warn civilian protesters away from the Senkakus. However, China would also extend the justification to the South China Sea, where it already conducts aggressive actions against the Philippines over the Second Thomas Shoal and the Scarborough Shoal.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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