Beijing's state-backed mouthpiece has warned that Chinese forces would shoot down Australian surveillance aircraft cruising in the skies above the South China Sea, stoking a fresh row. Despite Beijing's stinging warning, Australia said it would continue with its observation flights.
The sharply-worded editorial of China's Global Times has warned against the "freedom of navigation" of the flights operated by Australia's Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). It said "Australia should not count on being welcome or accepted" in the airspace above South China Sea — a disputed territory among several nations.
It continued: "Australian military planes better not regularly come to the South China Sea to 'get involved', and especially don't test China's patience by flying close to China's islands. Everyone has always been careful, but it would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian."
Threatening that ties between the "friendly nations" would be badly affected if Australia continues to operate in the disputed region, the Chinese mouthpiece reiterated the government's claims over the mineral-rich areas.
The mouthpiece's warning somewhat reflects earlier comments by Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei when he said: "We hope other countries, especially those outside the region, will watch their words and actions, rather than bringing up troubles and deliberately complicating the situation in the South China Sea."
"Some countries intentionally play up tension in the region so as to create disturbance and poke their noses into the South China Sea affairs. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to that."
The BBC earlier released a scratchy audio recording — obtained from RAAF's AP-3C Orion aircraft which flew on 25 November — showing the Australian pilot's monologue to the Chinese navy. The pilot was heard saying: "China navy, China navy."
"We are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — over." There was no response from Beijing's forces.
Despite the latest warning from China, Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne said her country would not stop its routine surveillance in the region. Dismissing concerns, Payne told reporters in Adelaide: "Maritime surveillance and air surveillance are very important to the job that the ADF does in maintaining regional stability and security. We always navigate in a constructive way in the region."
The archipelago comprising about 750 islands and reefs is believed to be rich in oil and gas resources. The chain of islands has become the centre of an international dispute in recent years with China claiming almost the entire region. Multiple countries including Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are embroiled in the overlapping claims in the region.