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Australia meets with China to thaw relations after Beijing hit back over warplane interception 

Australia’s two-year diplomatic freeze with China has ended with a meeting between Minister for Defence Richard Marles and his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe.

The face-to-face meeting, held at the Shangri-La security summit in Singapore, was the first high-level contact between the countries since January 2020. 

The meeting follows a ‘very dangerous’ mid-air incident in the South China Sea, where an Australian spy plane was intercepted by a Chinese fighter jet while conducting surveillance on May 26.

Mr Marles said the RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft was carrying out maritime surveillance when it was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft in a ‘dangerous manoeuvre’.

But Beijing hit back through The Global Times – the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece – which accused Australia of acting like a ‘little bully’. 

Australia’s Minister for Defence Richard Marles (left) is pictured with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe (right) in Singapore

Mr Marles said that ‘What occurred was that the J-16 aircraft flew very close to the side of the P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft.

‘In flying close to the side, it released flares, the J-16 then accelerated and cut across the nose of the P-8, settling in front of the P-8 at very close distance.

‘At that moment, it then released a bundle of chaff which contained small pieces of aluminium, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft.’

But The Global Times claimed the Australian government failed to address several questions about the operation in the South China Sea.

‘For example, where exactly in the South China Sea is the area in which the incident occurred?’ it wrote.

‘How far is it from the Chinese islands and reefs in the region? What is their purpose here? Furthermore, what did the Australian military aircraft do before the intercept?’

Against the backdrop of mutual antagonism, Mr Marles said Sunday’s meeting was a ‘frank and full exchange’ in which he spoke about China’s recent of the Australian air force plane.

‘This was an important meeting between two countries of consequence in the Indo-Pacific meeting,’ he told reporters in Singapore.

‘It was a critical first step. Australia and China’s relationship is complex and it’s precisely because of this complexity that it is really important that we are engaging in dialogue right now.’

An RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft was carrying out maritime surveillance in the South China Sea when it was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft on May 26 (pictured, stock image of a P-8 Poseidon)

An RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft was carrying out maritime surveillance in the South China Sea when it was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft on May 26 (pictured, stock image of a P-8 Poseidon)

Defence Minister Richard Marles blasted it as a 'dangerous manoeuvre' by the J-16 fighter jet (pictured, stock image of a J-16 fighter jet)

Defence Minister Richard Marles blasted it as a ‘dangerous manoeuvre’ by the J-16 fighter jet (pictured, stock image of a J-16 fighter jet)

Australian-Chinese relations have endured a difficult time since April 2020, when then-prime minister Scott Morrison called for World Health Organization investigators in Wuhan to have the same powers as UN-backed weapons inspectors.

The WHO was investigating the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic that has dominated world headlines for more than two years.

In November 2020 it emerged that the Chinese embassy in Canberra had drawn up what became known as the ‘list of grievances’ – 14 black marks that were China’s reasons for the bad blood with Australia.

AUSTRALIA VERSUS CHINA TRADE WAR 

In October 2020, China imposed informal bans on Australian cotton and coal. 

A month later, Australian sugar, barley, lobsters, wine, copper and timber were added to the list. 

Six meat processors were banned from exporting beef to China. 

In December 2020, Australia lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization over China’s 80.5 per cent tariffs on its barley exports.

In the filing, Australia claimed China deviated from WTO rules 26 times.

In March 2021, China imposed duties of between 116.2 per cent and 218.4 per cent on Australian wine, making it too expensive for Chinese consumers.

This effectively killed the market. 

The list included: ‘The incessant wanton interference in China’s… affairs’; ‘outrageous condemnation of the governing party of China’; and ‘an unfriendly or antagonistic report on China by media’.

China stopped having diplomatic contact with Australia and imposed billions of dollars worth of bans and tariffs on Australian exports. 

On Saturday, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin addressed China’s increasing number of aerial confrontations. 

He said there had been, ‘an alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea’ by Chinese planes and ships.

General Wei Fenghe rejected what he called a ‘smearing accusation’, though, and accused America and other unnamed countries of ‘meddling’ in the South China Sea and ‘stirring up trouble’.

‘Some big power has long practised navigation hegemony on the pretext of freedom of navigation,’ he told the Singapore summit.

‘(The US) has flexed the muscles by sending warships and warplanes on a rampage in the South China Sea,’ he said.  

Mr Marles expressed alarm at China’s rapid military build-up in the area.

‘Chinese militarisation of features in the South China Sea needs to be understood for what it is: the intent to deny the legitimacy of its neighbours’ claims in this vital international waterway through force,’ he said.

The South China Sea, which has been a flashpoint of dispute for several years, is one of the world’s major shipping routes and is of great strategic importance.

Speaking at the Shangri-La summit, General Wei Fenghe reaffirmed China’s position that it seeks a ‘peaceful reunification’ with Taiwan, but warned any push for Taiwanese independence would be squashed.

A graphic depiction of the 'dangerous manoeuvre' carried out by the J-16 plane (top) as the P-8 (bottom) flew over the South China Sea

A graphic depiction of the ‘dangerous manoeuvre’ carried out by the J-16 plane (top) as the P-8 (bottom) flew over the South China Sea

‘We will resolutely crush any attempt to pursue Taiwan independence,’ he said. ‘We will fight at all costs. And we will fight to the very end.’

Mr Marles’ meeting with General Wei Fenghe could pave the way for further high-level talks with China, with trade sanctions being something Australia is very keen to discuss as soon as possible.

‘In moving forward, while there is a change in tone, there is absolutely no change in the substance of Australia’s national interest,’ Mr Marles said.

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