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China Threatens to Shoot Down Australian Planes

On November 25th the Royal Australian Air Force conducted a “routine maritime patrol” in the South China Sea as a part of Operation Gateway, a program of periodic flights. An AP-3C Orion surveillance plane flew near a reclaimed Chinese feature in the Spratly island chain, in the sea’s southern portion.

In response, the Global Times, a Beijing-based Communist Party newspaper, published an editorial that essentially threatened to start a war: “It would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian.”

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne responded to Beijing’s bluster with remarks that left something to be desired. “We always navigate in a very constructive way in the region,” she said.

Although it’s good that the government in Canberra has joined the effort to protect the global commons, the minister’s tepid response to Beijing’s thinly disguised threat to shoot down a plane over international waters is disheartening.

Of course, Payne was just following the playbook of the US and other countries in the region in trying not to provoke Beijing. A calm, measured response is almost universally considered the correct course of action.

Yet those “responsible” and “constructive” reactions have failed to halt or even slow Beijing’s attempts to enforce its expansive—and in many cases unsupportable—territorial claims, not to mention end its threats to start a war with regional powers determined to preserve international rights to freedom of the seas.

The threat of the Global Times, unfortunately, was no isolated pronouncement. In late October Admiral Wu Shengli, chief of China’s Navy, told his American counterpart that war might result over freedom of navigation exercises, such as the one conducted by the USS Lassen near Subi and Mischief Reefs, also in the Spratlys. Like Payne, America offered a low-key reaction to the threat.

Washington policymakers may think they are avoiding escalation by not responding in kind to such rhetoric, but they are mistaken. If the US and Australia hope to keep the peace, they must make it clear to China that they are prepared to use whatever force is necessary to protect their vessels and aircraft and uphold the right of free passage.

Beijing is not just another claimant in the South China Sea. It is becoming a revisionist power, one routinely threatening to end East Asia’s decades of peace.

Maybe, at this late date, there is nothing the Australians can say to deter China. But if Canberra’s measured remarks come off as weak in Beijing, China’s hard-liners will be emboldened—or worse.

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