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Wednesday, 08 May 2024 15:58

China dropped a flare near an Aussie copter in its EEZ. What's wrong with that? Featured

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China dropped a flare near an Aussie copter in its EEZ. What's wrong with that? Image by Steve Unwin from Pixabay

Patriotism, they say, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Judged that way, there seem to be a large number of scoundrels around within the Australia media and also the Canberra political elite.

This morning, there were reports of the nasty Chinese, yes, those slinky-eyed bastards, dropping a flare near a good old patriotic Australian helicopter said to be in "international waters".

Condemnation came fast and in numbers. First out of the ranks was Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles who, according to the national broadcaster, the venerable ABC, said: "The PLA Air Force plane dropped flares about 300 metres in front of the Seahawk helicopter and about 60 metres above it, requiring the helicopter to take evasive action in order to not be hit by those flares.

"The consequence of being hit by the flares would have been significant. Importantly, the helicopter was unaffected and all the crew are safe."

One of the many poodles from the Liberal side, shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie, was quick to pipe up about what he called the "provocative and dangerous interaction" of the Chinese Air Force with an Australian helicopter in the Yellow Sea aka the East China Sea.

"This builds on the pattern of aggressive behaviour from the People's Liberation Army – Navy towards the Australian Defence Force over the past few years, including the sonar attack on RAN divers in November last year," thundered Hastie.

"We are relieved that no ADF personnel were injured by this reckless, dangerous and foolish move. It does not build trust between our nations.

"The Coalition calls on Richard Marles to stand up for our ADF personnel and raise this incident directly with his Chinese counterpart."

The ABC defence correspondent, Andrew Greene, reported all this dross without bothering to ascertain where the incident had taken place. Greene, who to me always sounds constipated when he appears on TV to report anything, also accepted at face value a statement from Defence Department.

"The PLA-AF aircraft released flares along the flight path of the Australian Defence Force helicopter," this department said in a statement on Monday night. "This was an unsafe manoeuvre which posed a risk to the aircraft and personnel.

"While there were no injuries sustained by ADF personnel or damage caused to the MH-60R helicopter, the safety and well-being of our ADF personnel continues to be our utmost priority."

It was left to former ABC award-winning journalist Peter Cronau to call out the Australian forces for their faux pas. "Australia's breach of China's EEZ (exclusive economic zone) was dangerous and provocative – military activity is not allowed in EEZs," he said in a tweet on X.

"It is considered by affected nations as an act of aggression. We are fortunate the Chinese did not act more sternly.

"Australia keeps sailing closer, ever closer, to a 'Gulf of Tonkin' incident on behalf of our US puppeteer."

The incident Cronau referred to is, of course, well-known as one of those that was a precursor to the Vietnam War.

Shanghai Daily columnist Andy Boreham pointed out that the distance between Canberra and the site of the helicopter incident was 8535 kilometres.

"Importantly, the area they claim the incident happened is within China's EEZ," he pointed out. "Innocent passage is allowed but military aircraft do NOT constitute 'innocent passage'."

Asked about the incident at the daily Chinese foreign ministry press conference, spokesperson Lin Jian said: "What truly happened was, an Australian military aircraft deliberately flew within close range of China’s airspace in a provocative move that endangered China’s maritime and air security in the name of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions.

"The Chinese military took necessary measures at the scene to warn and alert the Australian side. The way the situation was handled was consistent with our laws and regulations, professional and safe. China has lodged serious protests to the Australian side on its risky moves. We urge Australia to immediately stop the provocations and hypes to prevent misunderstanding and miscalculation."

Australian journalists also lined up to beat the patriotism drum. Greg Sheridan, the grand old poobah from The Australian, shrieked: "All the happy talk from the prime minister and his senior ministerial colleagues about a newly stabilised relationship with China has just been shown to be worth absolutely nothing."

Sheridan's offering was headlined "HMAS Hobart near-miss shows China holds Australia and Labor in contempt despite dialogue." No mention of where the incident took place.

Only one Australian journalist, Bernard Keane, politics editor of the website Crikey, has written an unbiased report about similar incidents in the past.

"... there is no doubt that EEZs around the world are international waters, " Keane wrote in June 2023.

He noted that China had ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, established its own EEZ and also recognised those of other states.

But, Keane added, the US has not ratified the convention, but says it will act in accordance with its provisions. "And it established its EEZ within 200 nautical miles of its coast and also recognises the EEZ of other states."

However, Keane noted, "the US also says it has the right to conduct military and intelligence-collection activities within any country’s EEZ. China disagrees. It says it respects freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but does not respect the right of foreign governments to conduct military and intelligence-collection activities within its EEZ.

"More to the point, the three major regional maritime powers friendly to Australia — India, Indonesia and the Philippines — agree with China."

Keane explained the benefit that Australia got from upholding the US approach to EEZs. "An expert from the US Naval War College who testified before Congress in 2009, said if it accepted the position of China, India, the Philippines and Indonesia on EEZs, the US would be forced to conduct military operations from more than 200 miles offshore," he pointed out.

"That would significantly reduce the range of US sensors and missiles, making intelligence-gathering much harder and making it much more difficult to deploy US marines and their equipment in amphibious assaults.

"America’s ability to project naval and air power would face limitations not only in the South China Sea but also in other EEZs such as the Persian Gulf. Its ability to use the world’s oceans as a medium of manoeuvre and global power projection would be threatened.

"This approach has consequences. China has begun to conduct intelligence-gathering and presence operations in other countries’ EEZs, including Australia’s, justifying its behaviour by saying that it would not do so if Australia adopted its own position on the sovereignty of EEZs. Australia can have no complaint if China adopts the very behaviour we’re engaging in.

"The real nature of the dispute over EEZs is rarely, if ever, made clear by the Australian Government. The presence of Australian vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea is always explained in vague terms as about 'freedom of navigation', without saying what that actually involves — dropping sonobuoys to identify Chinese submarines and ships in order to destroy them at the start of hostilities. Instead, Australian vessels and aircraft are portrayed as innocently exercising their rights under international law in the face of a belligerent power."

And, Keane concluded: "Australian media rarely deviate from the government line. In foreign media, however, it is relatively normal to note that there is a fundamental dispute between the US and China over what conduct is permissible in EEZs.

"Australians deserve to be told what the objective is: to uphold America’s desire to project power in every EEZ in the world, not just the South China Sea. Otherwise they will continue to be misled if or when a clash occurs."

Also rallying to the nation's side was Euan Graham of the defence industry lobby group, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who was firmly of the view that "China’s latest unsafe interception at sea was no accident".

I have no quarrel with Graham's propaganda. ASPI, after all, is paid $4 million by the Defence Department every year. It has to sing enough to earn its supper.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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