Despite escalating tensions in the South China Sea, RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies sees an extremely low risk to patrolling Australian aircraft from Chinese forces .
Air Marshal Davies said RAAF AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, which routinely fly through the southern South China Sea, had not deviated from planned patrol lanes, although they are routinely challenged.
“We do not plan to directly overfly just because we could,” he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
Australia has long conducted air patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea in what’s called Operation Gateway.
Air Marshal Davies said that hadn’t changed this year.
“We still go to the North Indian Ocean. We still do patrols in the South China Sea, but south South China Sea, so not in any internationally disputed waters,” he said.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea and inflamed regional tensions when it started building its own islands on disputed reefs, adding airstrips, radar and communications and defence systems, and troops.
It has rejected the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, insisting this is sovereign territory and a 12-nautical mile territorial limit applies.
Air Marshal Davies said China routinely challenged passing Australian aircraft, a practice which started some time ago.
However, there has been no change in use of radar, such as greater use of missile fire control radar, to suggest the situation is escalating.
“I am not seeing anything from an Australian perspective that has changed that would have me concerned that we are in an escalatory vector. I would say extremely low (risk), if at all,” he said.
Air Marshal Davies said this was about our ability to operate in this region, doing what we have been doing for 40-50 years.
“We are doing what we have done for a long time. There are claims within that area that are nothing to do with Australia,” he said.