Your web browser is no longer supported. To improve your experience update it here

Chinese warplane interception shows limits of Australian power in disputed sea

The "dangerous" interception of an Australian military reconnaissance aircraft by a Chinese warplane last month is a stark lesson for the new Labor government about dealing with the superpower, one expert says.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8A Poseidon was conducting routine surveillance in international airspace above the South China Sea on May 26 when the J-16 jet flew "very close", set off flares and dropped chaff in its path, the Defence Department said.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said yesterday the federal government had raised its concerns over the "very dangerous" intercept with the Chinese government.
A Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidon aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese fighter jet, the Department of Defence says.
A Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidon aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese fighter jet, the Department of Defence says. (Department of Defence)
"We have to back off in incidents such as this ... we simply don't have the luxury of risking escalation," Sam Roggeveen, director of the International Security Program with the Lowy Institute think tank, told 9News.
He said interceptions of foreign military aircraft were used by China to reinforce its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea.
But it was significant the incident followed reports about a similar episode involving a Chinese fighter flying extremely close and fast to a Canadian reconnaissance plane on a UN mission in East Asia.
"With medium-sized powers such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, China knows it is dealing with the 'little fish'."
In comparison, the Chinese are generally more cautious about intercepting US reconnaissance planes because the American military had far greater capacity to retaliate.
Australian has also refused US requests to join Freedom of Navigation naval patrols through disputed parts of the South China Sea because federal governments of both parties realise they would have to back off in any confrontation with Chinese naval or coastguard vessels.
The contested waters of the South China Sea. (CNN/Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative) (Supplied)
Roggeveen said the motives for the Chinese interception of the RAAF plane would be better understood if the Defence Department released the precise location and any footage taken by the Poseidon's crew.
"We need that sort of information for a better understanding about the incident ... it could have been down to a poorly trained (Chinese) pilot."
The vast South China Sea has become hotly disputed between China and other countries, including Australia.
Tensions in the contested waters have ratcheted up since 2014 as China has turned sandbars into islands, equipping them with airfields, ports and weapons systems and warned Western warships and aircraft to stay away from them.
Marles said the Chinese jet had flown near the RAAF plane before releasing "small pieces of aluminium", or chaff, into the air.
When ingested, chaff can damage a jet engine's blades and in extreme instances can even shut it down, said Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer who is now a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in New South Wales.
Since 2014, China has militarised the South China Sea to further its claims of sovereignty over the vast waterway. (AP)
While the P-8 Poseidon can operate on only one of its two engines, the alleged incident would have forced it to return to base, effectively ending its patrol, Layton said.
There have been other close encounters between Chinese and foreign warplanes over the years.
The worst of these occurred in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US Navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea.
In that case, the pilot of the Chinese F-8 fighter was killed and the US plane had to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island. The 24 US crew members were held on the Chinese island for 11 days before their release.
Why the South China Sea dispute matters
- Reported with CNN

Send your photos, videos and stories to 9News

Auto news: Shock new reason behind car delays -