Will China stop buzzing U.S. planes? Meetings at Pentagon may help decide

August 28, 2014

The Pentagon released this photograph Aug. 22 after registering a complaint about a Chinese J-11B fighter jet that buzzed a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon plane on Aug. 19 near Hainan Island. (Defense Department photo)

It has been more than a week since a Chinese J-11B fighter jet allegedly buzzed a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane some 130 miles east of China’s Hainan Island in international airspace. The act earned a strong rebuke from the Pentagon, with press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby calling it unprofessional, unsafe and unacceptable.

The story hasn’t ended there. Following Kirby’s comments last Friday, Chinese officials said the Pentagon’s criticism was groundless and blamed the U.S. military’s “large-scale and highly frequently close-in reconnaissance against China” for provoking the incident.

A Chinese-language editorial in a newspaper considered to be a mouthpiece for the Communist party also weighed in, blasting an unnamed Pentagon official who compared the incident between the J-11B fighter and the lumbering P-8 to an encounter between a Ferrari and a bus. The Italian sports cars have been involved in at least three deadly and politically charged crashes in China since March 2012, and are considered by some to be emblematic of the economic inequality there, according to Foreign Policy.

With all this simmering, U.S. and Chinese officials were planning to meet at the Pentagon this week to discuss rules for the future, Reuters reported. Details of those meetings have not emerged, but it’s likely discussions focused on avoiding provocative situations that could lead a crisis if a collision or military engagement occurred.

The recent incident between the J-11 and the P-8 is far from the only one involving China. Japanese and Chinese officials traded accusations in June about how close Chinese planes flew to a Japanese aircraft over the East China Sea. Japanese official said that two Chinese SU27 fighters had buzzed Japanese planes, flying as close as 30 meters away. Beijing rejected that, releasing video that it said showed Japanese planes deliberately flying close to the Chinese jets.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they want to partner more frequently with the Chinese military. It was invited to participate in the multinational Rim of the Pacific military exercise around Hawaii for the first time in June, and U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear has said there is more on which the U.S. and China can collaborate.

“If you take a look at our relationship as nations, I would say there is a majority of places where we converge with China on issues,” the admiral said this spring. “Not a vast majority, but a majority. But there are a number of key areas where we diverge, and that divergence can potentially cause friction. And so the question is, how will that friction be managed.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · August 27, 2014