Senior Canadian government officials are growing increasingly concerned over a dangerous escalation in aggression by Chinese fighter pilots in the skies above the Asia-Pacific region.
Multiple sources in the Canadian Forces and the federal government tell Global News that Chinese jets are repeatedly “buzzing” a Canadian surveillance plane that is part of a United Nations mission over international waters.
Those jets are frequently flying as close as 20 to 100 feet from the Canadian plane, sources say — so close that Canadian pilots can make eye contact with the Chinese pilots, and sometimes see them raising their middle fingers. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
“(That distance is) scary close at those high speeds, and it could lead to disaster in a crash,” said Charles Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa.
“You do it too much, and eventually, sometime, it’s going to go wrong.”
The Canadian CP-140 Aurora plane is currently taking part in Operation Neon, part of UN efforts to monitor sanctions against North Korea and prevent the rogue nation’s development of weapons of mass destruction. The plane is flown frequently by multiple rotating crews.
Sources tell Global News there have been approximately 60 of these types of intercepts with Chinese fighter jets since Christmas, over two dozen of which have been deemed dangerous.
The Department of National Defence confirmed details of the incidents to Global News, which a spokesperson said are “of concern and of increasing frequency.”
“In some instances, the (Canadian) air crew felt sufficiently at risk that they had to quickly modify their own flight path in order to increase separation and avoid a potential collision with the intercepting aircraft,” the spokesperson said.
The Canadian government has sent multiple diplomatic reprimands to Beijing about the incidents, according to the sources, calling the Chinese pilots’ conduct “unsafe and unprofessional.” China is not believed to have responded to those reprimands, which have not stopped the incidents from continuing.
Burton says he’s worried about not only a potential mid-air collision as a result of the Chinese pilots’ behaviour, but also the risk of an international incident between Canada and China.
“I’m completely puzzled as to why China would take the risk of fomenting an international incident that could lead to extremely heightened tensions if the Chinese aircraft leads to loss of Canadian life,” he said.
“And the fact the Chinese government is not responding to Canadian concerns, (not) seeking to rein in this kind of adventurism, is also very concerning.”
Tensions between Canada and China have yet to recover from the nearly three-year-long detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canada on U.S. fraud charges, and the subsequent imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China. All three were released last September after Meng struck a deal with U.S. prosecutors.
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Last month, Canada banned Huawei and fellow Chinese telecom giant ZTE from contributing equipment to its growing 5G network, further angering Beijing.
Billie Flynn, a retired squadron commander for the Royal Canadian Air Force and former F-35 fighter jet test pilot, says the Aurora the Canadians are flying — which he called “a big, lumbering plane” — would have difficulty manoeuvring away from a fighter jet flying so close.
“It’d be terrifying for (the Aurora pilot) to do any kind of evasive manoeuvre, because they might trip the Chinese fighter pilot into doing something even more irresponsible and more dangerous,” he told Global News.
“The best they can do is fly along and hope the Chinese fighter pilot disappears.”
Flynn added that the turbulence created by the fighter jet would put the Aurora pilot at even greater risk of losing control.
All of those factors would put the Aurora at the “mercy” of the skill of a nearby fighter jet pilot, he says.
“Being that aggressive, that much ‘hotdogging,’ suggests that (the Chinese pilots are) probably not that seasoned, not that good, which puts the Aurora crews at even more risk,” he said.
One source told Global News that before each mission, pilots and their commanders discuss potential risks and whether to proceed with a flight. The concern now, the source said, is that the “buzzing” tactic by Chinese fighter jet pilots is here to stay, raising the risk level for future flights.
China has increased its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region over the last two years, particularly around Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory. It has stepped up drills and manoeuvres around the island, and confirmed on Wednesday that it has conducted a combat “readiness patrol” in the sea and air in recent days.
The Chinese government has also continued to support North Korea economically and financially despite a renewed spate of rocket launches this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, which has drawn condemnation from its Asian neighbours and the West.
Last month, China and Russia vetoed new sanctions backed by the U.S. at the UN Security Council in response to North Korea’s weapons tests.
— with files from Marc-André Cossette