PM’s plane calls in on Quad squad, skirts China skies

San Diego: A flight to carry Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to a major defence announcement has highlighted Australia’s key partnerships in the region by starting in India, landing in Japan and ending in the United States.

The Royal Australian Air Force planned a long route from New Delhi to a refuelling stop in Tokyo so the prime minister and his delegation would remain outside Chinese airspace.

Australia’s outgoing ambassador to the US Arthur Sinodinos (2nd from left) greets Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on his arrival in San Diego.

Alex Ellinghausen

While RAAF aircraft have flown to China in the past, such as for the visits by prime ministers in 2014 and 2016 and Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s trip to Beijing in December, the government considered it better with the AUKUS flight to choose a route that did not require approval from Chinese authorities.

But the flight traversed the South China Sea in a reminder of the importance to Australia of open flight paths and freedom of navigation over a region where China has claimed sea borders that its neighbours dispute.

As a result, the flight path of the KC-30A aircraft illustrated the geopolitics in play in the AUKUS agreement to develop nuclear-powered submarines despite China’s objections.

Starting in the Indian capital after the prime minister’s three-day visit to the country last week, the RAAF flight traversed Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to skirt the southern border of China before heading north and across the Philippines to land in Tokyo. Commercial flights from New Delhi to Tokyo take a more direct route across southern China to save time.

Albanese then headed to San Diego, California over the weekend to meet US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for Tuesday’s AUKUS announcement on a new submarine fleet.

“This is a very big day for Australia, and it’s a good day,” Albanese said while walking on Sunday morning with Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, the Chief of Navy. “A new dawn in San Diego and a new dawn for Australia’s defence policy tomorrow.”

The flight to the AUKUS announcement took the prime minister to each of Australia’s partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad: India, Japan and the US.

Chinese foreign ministry officials have repeatedly criticised the Quad as an “exclusive clique” that is bad for the region, while presenting China as a force for regional peace.

“The countries concerned should abandon the outdated zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical thinking,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said before a quad leaders’ meeting in September 2021, the Associated Press reported.

China has also criticised the AUKUS pact as an example of “Cold War mentality” and has lobbied vigorously against the agreement at the International Atomic Energy Agency by pointing to concerns about nuclear proliferation.

India, however, has been largely comfortable with the Australian plan. It helped to stop a Chinese resolution against the Australian deal at an IAEA meeting in Vienna last September, leading China to withdraw the resolution after it realised it could not gain a majority.

Albanese cleared the way for this week’s announcement by calling leaders from key neighbours and allies to ensure they were not taken by surprise by the next phase of the decades-long plan, which the government sees as a way to maintain stability in the region.

“This is a very big day for Australia, and it’s a good day,” Albanese said while walking on Sunday morning with Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, the Chief of Navy.

Alex Ellinghausen

He briefed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad and New Delhi during his visit to India last week and spent some of Sunday in San Diego calling other leaders. The prime minister’s office would not confirm any of the calls.

The next phase of the prime minister’s journey will be a stop in Fiji on the way home from San Diego, giving him time to speak to Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who was elected to the position last December.

The RAAF flight was undertaken by a KC-30A tanker mostly used for air-to-air refuelling but also fitted with a cabin for the prime minister and government staff, as well as standard passenger seats for others. Media organisations are charged a fee akin to a commercial airline ticket for journalists on the flight.

In a sign of its transparency over the flight, the RAAF had the KC-30A flight path tracked in the same way that commercial airlines are recorded on popular websites that show thousands of flights each day.

The RAAF considered air-to-air refuelling for the KC-30A on its 20-hour flight, which would have required another Australian KC-30A to undertake the task, but decided in favour of a stop at midnight at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

In the end, the practical decision about the route also took on a symbolic meaning.

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