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Why are Chinese fighter jets ‘buzzing’ a Canadian aircraft?

Sky-high drama playing out in the Asia-Pacific region has aggravated tensions between China and Canada amid reports that Chinese fighter jets have been “buzzing” a Canadian surveillance plane in international airspace.

The Canadian Armed Forces has confirmed news reported by Global that on several occasions Chinese aircraft approached an RCAF CP-140 Aurora aircraft patrolling as part of the UN’s Operation NEON — in several instances close enough that Canadian pilots were easily able to see the Chinese flight crews.

The CAF said the buzzing of aircraft on UN-sanctioned missions is “of concern and of increasing frequency.”

“In some instances, the RCAF aircrew felt sufficiently at risk that they had to quickly modify their own flight path in order to increase separation and avoid a potential collision with the intercepting aircraft,” said the CAF in a statement that called the actions “unprofessional.”

Global Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters Thursday in French she was “extremely concerned” about the incidents, particularly in the part of the world where it occurred.

Joly said the actions are significant and must be raised with China. She stressed Canada is in the area as part of a UN mission.

The incidents will do nothing to improve the already uneasy relationship between the two nations, frayed as it has been by the detention saga in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on U.S. fraud charges, and the apparent retaliatory imprisonment in China of “the Two Michaels,” Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. After more than 1,000 days in captivity, Kovrig and Spavor were released in September by the Chinese — on the same day that Meng was released after striking a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice in which she admitted to wrongdoing without admitting guilt.

The Canadian Aurora began flight operations with Operation NEON on April 26. It ceased operations on May 26.

The UN-backed operation conducts surveillance in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure that North Korea abides by global sanctions aimed at pressuring that country to put a stop its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.

The practice of shadowing an enemy aircraft is a long-standing one, said military aviation historian Mike Bechthold. But in the past the roles have been reversed.

During the Cold War, the Soviets would send bombers into the Arctic, near, but not in, Canadian airspace. NORAD would dispatch Canadian or U.S. fighters to shadow and monitor them.

But there was an unwritten code that they wouldn’t get so close as to endanger the other aircraft, Bechthold said.

“That famous scene from Top Gun, where they fly canopy to canopy and give the bird?” he said, “That’s not normal.”

That being said, the level of aggression has been rising over the years.

In 2001, a U.S. EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft was downed when one of the two Chinese J-8 fighters shadowing it collided with it, forcing it to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island in China. (The EP-3 is based on the P-3 Orion airframe, as is the Canadian CP-140 Aurora.)

And prior to the war in Ukraine beginning, Russian fighters were making close and dangerous passes by American and NATO aircraft patrolling the Black Sea.

But there is method to what some might perceive as madness, Bechthold said.

In some cases, those close passes may be to test readiness and response of opposing aviators. In other cases, the goal may be to goad enemy aircraft into turning on their radars and targeting apparatus so that the instigators can get a sense of their capabilities.

The particular reason for the reported Chinese aggression is unknown.

It may specifically have to do with worsening Canada-China relations, or it may be territorial in nature.

“The Chinese have been very aggressive at extending their claims over the waters in that part of the world,” he said. “They’re considering the South China Sea as their personal national domain. They’ve been building all those islands to sort of back up their claims, making it into Chinese territorial waters.”

But Denny Roy, senior fellow focusing on Asia-Pacific security issues at the East-West Center, an independent non-profit organization partly funded by the U.S. government, said it is still possible the pilots may have been acting alone.

China not answering Ottawa’s request to talk about the incidents may also serve a purpose, Roy said.

“It’s very common in the Chinese system to sort of give an indication of displeasure or hostile intent but then not follow up on it and let the adversary stew in anxiety for awhile.”

Roy said after the Hainan Island incident, Washington took up the matter with Chinese officials who are then said to have cracked down on the practice of getting too close to U.S. planes.

Charles Burton, a China expert with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, said he is “flummoxed” by the actions of China’s pilots.

“It’s difficult to understand why the PLA air force would be risking fomenting an international incident by potentially crashing into a Canadian plane in international airspace,” Burton said.

He suggested the move could have been part of a bid to stop the monitoring of sanctioned commodities headed there.

But he said it could also be part of a plan to spark a confrontation related to the war in Ukraine. China could be looking for some kind of harbinger to a geopolitical confrontation, he said.

Burton said Canada must speak to its allies about how to sanction China to prevent further “adventurous” behaviour but that it is hard to know how to approach the matter with Chinese officials refusing to speak about the incident.

“It’s certainly something that we want to take up in consultation with our allies,” he said. “Obviously we’re not going to cease to fulfil our UN commitment to Operation NEON.”

Bechtold said that whatever the reason, it’s highly unlikely that Chinese pilots are running these close passes of their own accord.

Gone are the lone-wolf First Word War days of pilots Billy Bishop, whose solo mission — the anniversary of which was Thursday — in which he destroyed four German aircraft in 1917 won him a Victoria Cross.

Today’s pilots are skilled aviators, to be sure, but they are also system operators flying very complex, multimillion-dollar machinery that is integrated into a whole series of systems, said Bechtold.

Add that to the tremendous speeds at which today’s fighter jets operate, where the margins for error are measured in fractions of seconds, and there is little room left for freelancing.

“(Today’s) pilot doesn’t have the same scope to be a cowboy that the did 50 or 100 years ago,” he said. “But that being said, the sort of caricatures you see in Top Gun are there for a reason.”

The encounters between Chinese jets and the Canadian Aurora were almost certainly the result of orders from Chinese brass, premeditated and calculated to send a message, he said.

“Fighter pilots wouldn’t take those risks lightly,” he continued. “I would be very, very surprised to find they were acting as cowboys and not under orders, whether direct or implicit to harass the aircraft that they are intercepting.”

“The Chinese are probably trying to send a message. ‘Don’t come here. We don’t want you here.’

“And generally, the UN/Canadian/Western response is going to be, ‘We have the right to be here, so we’re going to keep doing it.’”

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