Why do Chinese planes provoke US allies?

(CNN) – Chinese warplanes are targeting US allies with high-risk provocations in the Asia-Pacific region, raising the risk of any incident spiraling out of control and could spark a war.

That is the view of analysts who warn that the increasingly aggressive maneuvers of Chinese combat aircraft – accused of endangering Canadian and Australian aircraft and crews in recent accidents – are a sign that Beijing is taking its territorial claims to a new and dangerous level.

It is the threat of such provocative moves escalating into conflict – perhaps after the downing of a warplane – that will draw attention to Asia’s largest defense summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, which began Friday in Singapore.

All will be watching US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fengyi speak at the conference about their views on security in the region, and are expected to meet for bilateral talks.

A senior US defense official said Washington would focus in part on “putting buffers on the relationship,” one official said, while calling for more mature communication mechanisms in crises to ensure that the growing competition between the two leading global powers does not turn into conflict. .

Australian military P-8 Poseidon aircraft. A Chinese J-16 is alleged to have recently intercepted a similar aircraft.

“One of the ground rules that we intend to establish with the People’s Republic of China is [República Popular China] “We are in the process of determining our position and they can determine their position,” the official said. “I think we are doing everything we can to make sure it is a professional and objective meeting.”

Analysts will be watching to see why China is increasing its aggressiveness, and whether this represents a new front in what many are already calling the “grey zone” struggle.

Peter Leighton, a fellow at Australia’s Griffith Asia Institute, is one of many who say China’s recent actions represent a “dangerous” escalation of these tactics.

In his words, “It’s time to worry, not just be vigilant.”

gray area

Actions in the “grey zone” is a military term for coercive actions aimed at achieving national political goals that do not rise to the level of actual war.

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Many analysts use the term to describe Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. China has been working for years to turn remote islands and mysterious reefs in disputed parts of the sea into fortified military bases and airstrips, and has been accused of using fishing boats to roam over land it claims to own. China still claims the vast majority of this 2 million square kilometer sea, which has territorial disputes with several other countries, despite a landmark international court ruling against its claims in 2016.

On the Lowy Institute blog, Layton said China is now developing “grey zone” tactics through its “increasingly aggressive” interception of aircraft of US allies.

In May, a Chinese J-16 fighter jet was reported to have intercepted and dropped small aluminum strips used as decoys for radar-guided missiles that could damage the pursuing aircraft if they entered an engine, into the path of an Australian reconnaissance plane. 8 near the South China Sea. The incident, which Canberra described as “extremely dangerous” and which said shattered aluminum had been swallowed up in the P-8’s engine, occurred after Canada denounced that Chinese planes had on several occasions been flying close to its ships. Reconnaissance aircraft operate from Japan, endangering Canadian pilots.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a press conference at the Pentagon on January 28, in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Although the incidents have alarmed the United States and its allies, Beijing insists that foreign countries are to blame, and has reacted angrily to both Australia and Canada.

For example, this was the response of Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesperson Tan Keefe to Canberra:

“When the Australian aircraft seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security, the Chinese military responded with safe, reasonable and legal professional measures. Since then the Australian side has been confusing right and wrong, repeatedly spreading disinformation to defend and create confrontation.”

Leighton and others don’t buy it: They say China is following a very thoughtful game plan.

Target weak links but why now?

Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on China military affairs and a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Beijing is using its pilots to conduct high-risk provocations.

It is a game that Beijing believes it will win because it is not worried about the possibility of escalation, but knows that Western countries are, Mastro said, adding that “the Chinese do not believe in unintended escalation.”

“If there is a projection, the Chinese either want to start a war and they want it or they don’t want it and they won’t,” he said. “In their view, it doesn’t make sense to be pushed into a war you don’t want to fight.”

“They have these risky behaviors and then they say [a los opositores] It would be safer for you if you weren’t here.”

If so, why would they do it now?

It is significant that China has so far singled out US allies – not the country itself – in this round of provocations, Mastro and others said.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fengyi.

Timothy Heath, senior fellow for international defense at RAND Corp.

He noted the increasing importance attached to Washington by the Quartet – its informal alliance with Australia, India and Japan, which held two summits last year – and US statements about building alliances to defend Taiwan, the democratically self-governing island. It states that Beijing considers it part of its territory and threatens to seize it by force if necessary.

“Targeting US allies like Canada and Australia could be a way to investigate weaknesses in those coalitions and inform the public in those countries about the risks of military cooperation with the United States against China,” Heath said.

Mastro said Beijing sees provoking those countries as less dangerous than provoking the United States, because it has more limited means of response.

“[China] It does not have to conflict with the United States to undermine the American position in Asia. You just have to put aside [sus] allies.”

Analysts say China is likely to play a long game, using “grey area” tactics to gradually reduce US influence.

Layton put it this way: “China hopes that foreign military aircraft, under the constant threat of collision or damage, will be forced to gradually leave the South China Sea. If so, as distrust of China’s activities subsides, other countries can gradually come. to accept, or at least accept, China’s extraordinary territorial claims.”

Rogue band theory

However, not all observers are convinced that the increasing aggression in the Pacific is part of a grand plan.

ChinaTaiwan

A Chinese Air Force fighter plane takes off during the 2017 exercises (Xinhua/Liu Zhang via Getty Images)

One theory is that it could be the work of a rogue pilot or squadron taking their own initiative rather than following orders from Beijing.

Drew Thompson, a former US Department of Defense official and senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, called on Australian and Canadian authorities to reveal more details of the air accidents.

For example, a lot of the tail numbers of Chinese planes that were said to have flown over Canadian planes frequently can be inferred, he said. If the tail numbers are the same or similar across accidents, he said, this may support the rogue pilot theory.

However, if the tail numbers indicate that these are different aircraft and different squadrons, “this may be more than the initiative of an ignorant single pilot who wants to make a political statement,” Thompson said.

where are we going?

Regardless of the motive behind the aggression, Thompson said that so far, possible diplomatic solutions appear slim.

“The next step is to announce some pressure on China,” he said.

But Mastro said trying to embarrass China would have little effect because it sees the situation from a different perspective than the West.

“I know we’re saying they should have the same interests as us…but they don’t,” he said.
However, Mastro said, Washington and its allies should inform Beijing that they will hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable if its maneuvers get out of hand.

“We are wasting time trying to discover Chinese intentions,” he said of Western countries. [Preguntándonos] If it was on purpose, if not on purpose, we think about it a lot.”

As the biggest names in defense gather in Singapore this weekend, the big question for most attendees will be: How long will Washington and its allies continue to make such “flights” before they decide to toughen their stance.

With information from Oren Lieberman.

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