A Chinese warplane fired flares in front of a Canadian military helicopter over international waters of the South China Sea last Sunday, an operation that Canadian military officers said was reckless and could have resulted in the downing of the aircraft.
“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,” said Maj. Rob Millen, air officer aboard the Royal Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Ottawa, the warship from which the Sikorsky Cyclone helicopter was flying.
The incident was the second of two encounters the Ottawa’s helicopter had with Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy J-11 fighter jets over international waters on October 29, which saw the fighters get as close as 100 feet from the helicopter, Millen told CNN in an interview aboard the warship.
He said that Canada and other nations have seen Chinese aircraft get close to fixed-wing aircraft on numerous occasions, but it was rare to see such action taken against a helicopter.
The first incident was over international waters outside of 34 miles from the Paracel Island chain in the northern part of the South China Sea. The second was also over international waters outside of 23 miles from the Paracels. The warship was operating in international waters 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of the Paracels at the time.
The Canadian helicopter was searching for a previously detected submarine when the incidents occurred, officers aboard the Ottawa said.
Millen said he was piloting the Canadian helicopter earlier in the day, when Chinese J-11s intercepted it at close range while it flew straight and level at 3,000 feet above the water back toward the Ottawa, a signal to the Chinese that it had no hostile intent.
In that earlier encounter, Millen said the Chinese fighters flew in circles around his helicopter.
“When the intercepting aircraft was closer and closer, at a certain point it became unsafe,” he said.
His helicopter experienced turbulence coming off the Chinese jets, also posing a danger to the copter, Millen said.
“I certainly am not as comfortable as you can be based on the fragility of the rotor system,” he said.
Millen said he ended that encounter by descending to 200 feet, an area where the helicopter can operate but is “very uncomfortable for fast air fighter jets.”
The Canadian air force major said his military’s air crews train on how to respond to such intercepts as occurred on Sunday and will continue to fly over the international waters of the South China Sea.
Asked about the interception at a regular press briefing on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin replied: “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned.”
“We have reiterated many times our firm position on Canadian warplanes conducting reconnaissance near China’s territorial airspace,” he told reporters. “We hope Canada will refrain from its inappropriate behavior to avoid the situation from becoming more complicated.”
CNN has also reached to China’s Defense Ministry for comment.
China claims historic jurisdiction over almost the entirety of the vast South China Sea, and since 2014 has built up tiny reefs and sandbars into artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems – sparking outcry from the other claimants. The Paracels, called the Xisha Islands by China, are in the northern part of the South China Sea, east of Da Nang, Vietnam, and south of China’s Hainan Island.
The 1.3-million-square-mile waterway is vital to international trade, with an estimated third of global shipping worth trillions of dollars passing through each year. It’s also home to vast fertile fishing grounds upon which many lives and livelihoods depend.
In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague concluded that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea. China has ignored the ruling.