Rolling back dangerous Chinese military behaviour – it starts with a phone call

A close up of a PLA Air Force jet, similar to the view the RAN helicopter crew would have had on 4 May, just before the Chinese pilot released flares that could have caused a crash & their deaths.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that a Chinese jet has endangered an Australian Navy helicopter and the lives of its crew by unprofessional flying and launching flares in front of it in the Yellow Sea. 

This is just one of hundreds of similar aggressive and dangerous acts from Xi Jinping’s Peoples Liberation Army in the Indo Pacific in the last two years.

What’s important is what happens from here.  That can’t be more of the same – either from the Chinese government and its military or from our own government and Defence organisation.

A media release from Richard Marles on this latest Chinese military aggression towards Australian Defence Force personnel is a welcome shift from the practice of not telling the public about incidents by claiming ‘operational security’.  Prime minister Albanese has also spoken on Australian television to tell us the Chinese military behaviour is unacceptable.

But doing the same thing the Govt did at the time of the sonar incident in November 2023 that injured an ADF diver is clearly not going to change Chinese behaviour.

Then, PM Albanese didn’t raise the PLA’s dangerous sonar use against the Australian Navy last year with Xi Jinping despite meeting him face to face at the time at APEC in America just days after the dangerous sonar incident, but he did raise trade & wine sales.

Instead, the government made ‘appropriate diplomatic representations’ – which were promptly ignored and rejected by Chinese government officials. Then, Richard Marles put out a sternly worded media release – after Mr Albanese’s meeting with Xi, with officials making appropriate representations through normal channels.  And Mr Albanese spoke publicly about the incident once he was back home in Australia.

But leaving contact with the Chinese government to carefully phrased representations by officials to officials while being silent in his face to face meeting with Xi told the Chinese leader our govt didn’t prioritise the Chinese military’s dangerous behaviour enough to mention it at leader level. Unsurprisingly, Xi felt no pressure to restrain his aggressive ships’ captains & pilots.

Now more lives have been threatened, this time while the Australian military was enforcing a UN sanction against North Korea that China has signed up to.

And what has the government done this time? Made ‘appropriate diplomatic representations’ and put out a media release to tell the domestic audience here in Australia it is acting.

We should have no expectation that this will change the behaviour of the Chinese military because this is the playbook we’ve used before and we know it doesn’t work. And this time, we can be even more certain that senior officials expressing concern is pointless, because just last week China hosted the ‘Western Pacific Naval Symposium’ and Australia’s Navy Chief, Mark Hammond, spoke directly with the head of the Chinese Navy asking for him to end the practice of dangerous and threatening behaviour by the Chinese military when it encounters our Defence Force in the region. 

Days later we have this latest incident involving a Chinese fighter jet and an Australian Navy helicopter.  Officials aren’t directing this Chinese policy, so the head of the Chinese Navy or even the most powerful Chinese diplomat can’t stop it.  Xi Jinping can.

Mr Albanese has now said he will discuss the incident when Chinese Premier Li visits Australia in June.  That’s a month away and so he loses the sense of urgency and importance that speaking directly now would give, and its dealing with yet another of Xi Jinping’s underlings on an issue that is about Xi’s directions and policies for his military. 

This commitment to speak to Li takes some heat out of domestic criticism of Mr Albanese, while letting the incident be managed in business as usual fashion as one of several talking points in due course.  It won’t change Xi’s mind and it doesn’t take advantage of leader level contact.

It’s time for Mr Albanese to use his leader to leader relationship, pick up the phone & tell Xi to stop. Foreign Minister Wong has said this direct dialogue is important “not just to take forward our shared interests, but also to exchange views on the issues that matter to us and to navigate wisely, any differences we have”.

If it now turns out that the leader to leader dialogue we were told was a key outcome of the government’s successful diplomacy that ‘stabilised’ our bilateral relationship isn’t useful for wisely navigating this dangerous incident between our militaries, what is it good for?

If Mr Albanese does make this call, three things can happen: Xi Jinping can refuse the call or reject the very idea that the Chinese military’s dangerous behaviour happened.  Xi can be polite and use reassuring words but let the Chinese military continue to act dangerously and endanger their own lives and those of other militaries they encounter, or Xi could actually direct his pilots and ships captains to restrain themselves.

Any of these outcomes is useful to Australia and every other nation whose militaries operate in the Indo Pacific and encounter Xi’s Peoples Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force.  The first two show that Xi Jinping knows about his military’s behaviour, is happy to let his military intimidate and coerce others and is comfortable with the risk that this might result in damage and death.  That would end any speculation that his pilots and ships captains are just making their own decisions about what they do, and would confirm that their aggression is directed from the most senior level in Beijing. 

And if after Mr Albanese calls, the unexpected happened and Xi Jinping directed his military to rediscover restraint and professionalism when they encounter our and other militaries in the region, that is an outcome that would make our world safer.

It’s also time for Australia to step up with partners & allies like the Philippines, Japan & the US & roll back some of the aggressive Chinese military presence in others’ maritime territories.  That involves some risk, but probably not much more than the risks to life and limb our Defence Force men and women already face when operating in the region near the Chinese military. Acting together with international partners also lowers the risk of the Chinese seeing an opportunity to bully others separately – their preferred mode of behaviour.

A place for rolling back this Chinese aggression is in Philippines national territory like the Second Thomas Shoal.  There, Chinese coastguard, militia and navy vessels are harrassing and damaging Philippines vessels resupplying the Philippines outpost, which is a rusting out grounded ship sitting on the shoal.

The Chinese plan seems to be to starve out the Philippines military personnel on the shoal wait until the grounded ship they’re on falls apart and becomes unliveable, and then move in to take possession of the shoal.

A joint US, Japan, Philippines and Australian operation to replace the rusted out wreck with a new outpost and supply it over time would reverse Chinese momentum in region and re-establish legally-sound international boundaries.

This type of collective action isn’t about confronting the Chinese military everywhere, all the time, all at once.  It’s about the choice of key places where it matters most for reversing Chinese momentum and re-establishing others’ sovereignty – as in the case of the Philippines’ recognised sovereignty over South China Sea features like Second Thomas Shoal.

But the first step is just a phone call.

A version of this article was first published on Defence Connect.