China calls Australia 'Washington's goon' after accusations of 'dangerous' aircraft intercept

Australia has been labelled "Washington's 'goon'" by China after Canberra on Sunday accused a Chinese fighter aircraft of dangerous intercepting an Australian military plane in May.

According to Australia's defence department, a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter craft over the South China Sea on May 26. The Australian craft was apparently there for "routine maritime surveillance activity" in international airspace. 

Defence Minister Richard Marles on Sunday said the Chinese aircraft released a "bundle of chaff", containing pieces of aluminium that were sucked into the Australian plane's engine. 

He called it a "very dangerous act" and the government has said it "posed a safety threat" to the Australians.

But Beijing, through the state-run media outlet the Global Times, has accused Canberra of concealing "pivotal details", such as where in the South China Sea the event occurred, why the Australian aircraft was there, and what it was doing before the intercept.

"The Australian military has repeatedly groundlessly accused the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) of  conducting 'unsafe and unprofessional' operations, but why does it always come as loud and urgent but with little evidence?"

According to a Reuters report, the Australian defence department said the country has for decades undertaken maritime surveillance in the region and "does so in accordance with international law, exercising the right to freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace".

The Global Times piece continued to push Beijing's claim that Australia has become an extension of the United States. It says "Canberra's provocations against China" are a "performance report to Washington".

"Canberra wants to become Washington's 'right-hand man' and regards itself as the 'deputy sheriff' of the Asia-Pacific region."

It goes on to say China is crucial to the Australian economy - China is Australia's largest trading partner - and makes a veiled threat. 

"No one can act as Washington's 'goon' while making a fortune from China. It just doesn't work that way."

The South China Sea is an area of contention for the countries surrounding it. China claims much of the sea as its own, building artificial islands there and warning others not to sail close to what it refers to as its territory. Other nations have contested China's expansion and, in 2016, the Hague rejected China's historical claims.

Just last week, in a joint statement, New Zealand and the United States said there must be "freedom of navigation and overflight" in the region.

"We oppose unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea that run counter to the rules-based international order."

That joint statement was received with fury by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Last year, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian leader Scott Morrison expressed concerns over developments in the South China Sea, China brandished them as "irresponsible"

A New Zealand Navy frigate sailed through the disputed waters last year as tensions in the region grew. China, often through its state media, made a number of threats towards other nations seeking to travel the South China Sea. In July, as HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed the waters, the Global Times said the ship should stick to what China says are international waters or face a "confrontation".