SYDNEY — Australian Air Force chiefs have revealed that pilots are being offered counseling after they encounter Chinese military jets over the South China Sea.
Under Operation Gateway, Australia carries out maritime surveillance patrols in the North Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Most patrols are routine, but some have caused alarm. In May 2022, a Royal Australian Air Force surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese military aircraft which released aluminum chaff, that was ingested into the engine of the Australian plane. At the time, officials in Canberra accused Beijing of intimidation but Australian air force officials now believe the encounter might have been caused by a miscalculation by the Chinese J-16 fighter pilot.
Other unspecified encounters with Chinese forces have been reported since then.
Australian Air Vice Marshal Darren Goldie told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Monday that it is important air crews are properly debriefed after stressful missions.
“The mental health of our aviators and people that are coming in contact with things like intercepts or challenges on the radio — it is important that when we bring them back, we talk to them about the experience, and we talk to them about what services are available should they be troubled by the experiences they saw,” Goldie said.
The South China Sea lies to Australia’s north. It has vital shipping lanes and has been a regional flashpoint for years. Several countries claim ownership of its small islands and access to natural resources. In recent years, Beijing has been increasingly assertive in the region.
Australian air force patrols are part of Canberra’s efforts to establish a viable ‘rules-based’ strategic order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Tensions in the region have been part of deteriorating diplomatic relations between Australia and China in recent years. There has been friction over democracy in Hong Kong, human rights in China’s Xinjiang Province, the future of Taiwan, and Beijing’s ambitions in the South Pacific.
However, a center-left government that won an election in Australia in May 2022 has been eager to reduce tensions with the country’s biggest trading partner.
High-profile meetings between senior government officials in recent months have been interpreted as a sign that diplomatic frictions are being eased. But analysts believe the potential for aggressive military encounters in the South China Sea show that vigilance is needed.
China accounts for about a third of Australia’s global trade. Government data shows that the export of Australian goods and services to China were worth $123 billion in 2020-21.