Is President Xi himself authorising aggressive military manoeuvres targeting Western forces, including the RAAF, or are these isolated incidents from rogue PLA personnel?
On 26 May, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-16 strike fighter intercepted a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 Poseidon conducting “routine maritime surveillance activity” in international airspace over the South China Sea.
The fighter jet cut across the nose of the Australian surveillance platform, releasing a “bundle of chaff” ingested into the RAAF aircraft’s engine.
On the same day, a Chinese jet confronted a Canadian military aircraft enforcing United Nations sanctions along the border with North Korea, failing to adhere to international air safety norms.
Just days prior, Chinese and Russian bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea during the Quad leaders’ meeting in Tokyo.
But aerial interceptions have not been the only acts of aggression from the Chinese military.
In February, Defence reported a laser attack on a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon while in flight over Australia’s northern approaches.
According to intelligence gathered by RAAF personnel, the laser emanated from a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Luyang Class guided missile destroyer travelling through the Arafura Sea alongside a PLAN Yuzhao Class amphibious transport dock vessel.
Defence condemned the “unprofessional and unsafe military conduct”, warning it could have endangered the lives of the P-8A Poseidon crew.
So, were these confrontations isolated incidents, the result of rogue behaviour from Chinese military personnel?
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According to Thomas Wilkins, a senior Fellow at ASPI, the growing frequency of such reports suggests these incidents form part of a deliberate CCP strategy.
“A closer look at the recent Australian case may reveal why this intimidation is occurring,” Wilkins writes.
“At the tactical level, it has been argued by some that the Australian case could be the work of a ‘rogue pilot’—perhaps overzealous in protecting China’s declared sphere of influence from foreign incursions.
“This is possible, but it would then appear that the Chinese armed forces have quite a few ‘rogue operators’, something unlikely to be tolerated in a rigid authoritarian system like China’s, or a military presumably dedicated to upholding professional standards. At any rate, the pilot’s deliberate discharge of chaff cannot be considered an ‘accident’ in and of itself, even if it was not explicitly ordered by his/her commander.”
Wilkins then suggests the incidents could be a response to orders at the operational level — potentially the result of a “permissible environment” enabling pilots to engage in intercepts without attracting punishment.
“Are they now part of PLAAF standard operating procedures and rules of engagement? Certainly, a pattern appears to be emerging, rather than a series of unlikely coincidences,” Wilkins continues.
Further, the approval of a permissible environment at the strategic level reflects a “coordinated strategy” across domains and in subregions to “use hybrid means of warfare”.
Wilkins adds: “This looks more credible when one recalls Chinese strategists’ interest in such below-kinetic-threshold activities, informed by Sun Tzu’s famous maxim appertaining to the art of fighting, without fighting (to paraphrase).
“By this stage, deliberately ‘designing accidents’ like this, looks more convincing.”
According to Wilkins, the approval of acts of military aggression on the operational level are likely to have been sanctioned by the tip of the spear at the political level, given President Xi Jinping's tight grip on power.
“This assumption—reasonable to the extent that the CCP’s authoritarian system has exceptionally tight control of events, most especially in matters concerning the South China Sea—necessarily ascribes a high level of coordination and efficiency within the system (a misperception applied to the Soviet Union in the past),” he writes.
“Given that the communist system remains a ‘black box’ to outsiders, we have no way of knowing for certain.”
But why approve acts of military aggression while also seeking to reset diplomatic relations with nations like Australia?
“For Beijing, the beauty of such seemingly contradictory activities, military provocation combined with diplomatic denial and putative olive branches, might suggest more than a tactical ‘accident’ by a rogue pilot, but rather a ‘designed accident’,” Wilkins adds.
“That would be plausibly (or implausibly) deniable but nevertheless discombobulating for the recipient of such mixed messages.
“Rather surreally, Chinese officials have both retorted that ‘the measures taken by the Chinese military were professional, safe, reasonable and legal’ and then accused Australia of ‘dangerous and provocative acts’.”
Wilkins suspects these seemingly contradictory tactics deliberately aim to destabilise the target.
“Uncertainty is achieved by the appearance of various theories, none of which can be conclusively verified as true and therefore dealt with appropriately and categorically by policymakers,” he writes.
“Add to this a heavy dose of disinformation to further muddy the waters and create doubts and this leads to a degree of policy paralysis for the respondent.”
“It places the onus the target country to escalate in response and/or risk further incidents by continuing with such patrols, and Beijing clearly feels confident that this would be unpalatable or infeasible, at least for countries like Australia (and Canada).”
But China’s “game of brinksmanship” has its limits, evidenced by the RAAF’s deployment of another aircraft hours after the confrontation with the PLAAF jet.
Wilkins warns China’s “designed accidents” strategy may trigger escalation.
“The Australian crew of the P-8, upon witnessing the activation of a (defensive) weapon system by the Chinese interceptor, may have responded to a ‘combat’ situation (the P-8 is not suitably armed to respond, but in other cases this may not be the case),” he notes.
“Equally worrisome, due to the ingestion of the chaff fragments into its engines, the P-8 could have been downed by the encounter leading to casualties and/or an ensuing diplomatic crisis (like the Hainan Incident in 2001 in which a US EP-3 surveillance plane was brought down after an accident involving a PLAAF J-8 interceptor, whose pilot was killed).”
Wilkins concludes: “Whatever the accidental, deliberate or unintended effects of such activities by Chinese armed forces, tensions will be raised accordingly.
“That will confirm the worst fears of strategic planners in Canberra, Ottawa and elsewhere, and drive more robust (and probably combined) responses.”