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Chinese Fighters’ Dangerous Maneuvers Threaten Canadian Helicopter Over South China Sea

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Tensions erupted between China and Canada a few days ago when two Chinese fighter jets brazenly intercepted a Canadian military helicopter over the South China Sea. The aggressive maneuvers brought the Chinese planes dangerously close, threatening the safety of the helicopter pilots.

According to Canada’s Defense Minister, the provocative acts could have downed the helicopter and were “unsafe and unprofessional.” But for China’s military, harassing and intimidating foreign forces, even in international waters, is becoming routine.

Tensions have been building for years as China aggressively asserts its territorial claims in the South China Sea, ignoring international law. Chinese ships and planes have repeatedly harassed American, Canadian, and other forces lawfully operating in the region. 

With Chinese harassment now escalating to reckless and dangerous heights, many wonder when Trudeau’s government will move beyond mere statements. 

Will Trudeau levy consequences for China’s life-threatening aggression? Or will he allow further intimidation of Canadian forces defending international law? 

Tensions flared between China and Canada on October 29th when Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fighter jets twice intercepted a Canadian military helicopter over international waters in the South China Sea. 

The dangerous aerial encounters are the latest evidence of escalating tensions between China and Western nations over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. 

While China claims nearly the entire strategic waterway as its sovereign territory, an international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China’s claims have no legal basis. 

However, Beijing has ignored the ruling and continued aggressively asserting its claims, building military bases on reefs and islands and confronting foreign aircraft and ships transiting the region.

According to Canada’s Defence Minister Bill Blair, a Chinese J-11 fighter jet got within 100 feet of the Canadian CH-148 Cyclone helicopter during the first encounter. The close flyby caused turbulence that rocked the helicopter. 

Later that same day, another Chinese J-11 performed even more dangerously by launching flares directly into the flight path of the Canadian helicopter. 

Major Rob Millen, who was piloting the helicopter at the time said, “The risk to a helicopter in that instance is the flares moving into the rotor blades or the engines so this was categorized as both unsafe and non-standard, unprofessional,” 

“One of our responsibilities, working with our allies as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, is to maintain that freedom of navigation in international waterways. We were there doing our job,” Minister Blair told reporters.

He added that while intercepts can be routine, “it is expected that all parties involved conduct this type of activity in a safe and professional manner.”

The proximity of the Chinese jets to the Canadian helicopter, with one coming within 100 feet, shows a brazen willingness to harass and intimidate foreign militaries operating in the area.

As Major Millen described, the turbulence caused by the J-11 could have potentially crashed the helicopter if the pilot wasn’t able to react in time. The use of flares, normally meant as a defensive countermeasure, seems intended to threaten and obstruct the Canadian crew. “This was categorized as both unsafe and non-standard, unprofessional,” said Millen.

The two encounters occurred while the helicopter was searching for a submarine and flying in international waters outside the Paracel Islands. China lays claim to much of the South China Sea, but Canada asserts it has the right to operate there.

“We have reiterated many times our firm position on Canadian warplanes conducting reconnaissance near China’s territorial airspace,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said about the incidents. “We hope Canada will refrain from its inappropriate behavior to avoid the situation from becoming more complicated.”

This is not the first incident of Western – Chinese clashes. Tensions have been building for years between China and Western nations like the U.S. and Canada over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. 

Last June, a Chinese warship nearly collided with the American destroyer USS Chung-Hoon during a joint Canada-US mission sailing through the disputed Taiwan Strait.

The provocative encounter was witnessed first-hand by the Canadian frigate HMCS Montreal, which was participating alongside the Chung-Hoon. Reporting from the scene, Global News crew aboard the Montreal observed the Chinese ship speed up and cut dangerously close in front of the American destroyer.

According to HMCS Montreal’s commander Capt. Paul Mountford, the risky maneuvering by the Chinese vessel was “not professional.”

The Montreal immediately radioed the Chung-Hoon to warn them and told the American ship it needed to move out of the way or be hit by the Chinese ship. The Chung-Hoon tried contacting the Chinese directly, asking them to steer clear.

But the Chinese refused to respond or alter course. With a collision seconds away, the Chung-Hoon had no choice but to veer off its original trajectory and slam on its brakes. This evasive action narrowly avoided a crash with the encroaching Chinese warship.

When questioned about the incident, then-Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu blamed the U.S. for increasing tensions, saying “They are not here for innocent passage, they are here for provocation.” He asserted China’s right to monitor foreign militaries near its territory, saying “Why did all these incidents happen in areas near China, not in areas near other countries?”

There have been multiple other recent cases of Chinese pilots flying aggressively close to American and Canadian aircraft. In October, a Chinese fighter came within 16 feet of a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber over the South China Sea. 

That same month, a Chinese jet got within 5 meters of a Canadian surveillance plane over the East China Sea in what Canada called an “unprofessional” and “very aggressive” intercept.

In February, a Chinese fighter flew within 500 feet of a U.S. Navy plane near the Paracel Islands, an incident witnessed by reporters on board. The U.S. has reported over 180 “risky” encounters with Chinese aircraft near China’s coasts since fall 2021. As Chinese brazenness increases, the risk of accidents or miscalculation also grows as military planes and ships operate in close proximity.

This dangerous pattern follows an “aggressive intercept” by Chinese aircraft of a Canadian plane on October 16th while it was flying a mission to enforce North Korean sanctions. At least two Chinese jets flew within about 5 meters of the Canadian plane for multiple hours during the over 8-hour mission. 

Major-General Iain Huddleston, who was on board, called it an unnecessary and unexpected escalation, saying “It’s a ramp-up of the aggressiveness that’s really unexpected and unnecessary in the context of the mission that we’re flying.” 

The repeated close encounters with the Canadian crew show the willingness of China to harass foreign planes even while conducting routine missions far from Chinese territory.

These increasingly brazen actions by the Chinese military to harass and intimidate Canadian forces operating legally in international airspace and waters raise urgent questions about how Canada will respond. 

While Defence Minister Bill Blair has raised concerns through diplomatic channels, some analysts believe a stronger stance is needed to deter further hazardous intercepts by Chinese pilots. 

With Chinese aggression endangering Canadian personnel and escalating tensions, many are left wondering when the Trudeau government will go beyond statements and lodge formal protests with Beijing. 

If China refuses to restrain its provocative behavior, Canada may have to consider options like reducing military exchanges and cooperation with China. The ball is in Trudeau’s court to take substantive action defending Canadian sovereignty and security in the face of repeated intimidation from the Chinese military.

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