The Pentagon on Friday blamed China for instigating a dangerous midair encounter with a U.S. military aircraft off its coast, saying that a Chinese fighter jet made several threatening passes during an intercept in international airspace.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the U.S. government filed a formal complaint with China about the near miss between a Chinese J-11 fighter jet and a Navy Poseidon P-8 patrol aircraft 135 miles east of Hainan Island. The incident occurred Tuesday, he said.
Kirby said the Chinese fighter jet brought one of its wingtips within 20 feet of the Poseidon, performed a “barrel roll” at close range and also flashed past the nose of the U.S. aircraft at a 90-degree angle with its underside exposed, apparently “to make a point of showing its weapons.”
“This kind of behavior not only is unprofessional, it’s unsafe,” Kirby told reporters.
The risky incident was the latest in a series of near misses between Chinese and American ships and aircraft as both countries have sought to assert their military might in the East China and South China seas.
U.S. defense officials said they believe the J-11 fighter aircraft involved in Tuesday’s incident belongs to the same People’s Liberation Army unit suspected of conducting intercepts of U.S. aircraft in March, April and May. The Pentagon declined to identify the Chinese military unit but said it was based on Hainan Island.
Defense officials said this week’s encounter was particularly hazardous, calling it the most reckless Chinese intercept since April 2001, when a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft and triggered an international furor. In that case, which likewise occurred off Hainan Island, the Chinese fighter tried to intercept the U.S. plane by buzzing past at close range but crashed into it instead, according to U.S. accounts. China, in turn, cast blame on the Americans.
The Chinese pilot was killed and his plane fell into the sea. The U.S. aircraft was badly damaged, and its two-dozen crew members made an emergency landing on Hainan. The Chinese military detained the U.S. crew members, and it took 11 days to negotiate their release. China kept the surveillance aircraft for several more weeks, stripping it of sensitive material.
The Pentagon kept this week’s incident quiet for three days. Defense officials said they were holding out hope that China would express regret or provide an explanation, but they said none was provided.
“You’re not supposed to do a barrel roll over an aircraft,” Kirby said. “I think the message that they are apparently trying to send was [to prevent] the flight of this patrol aircraft. The message we’re sending back to China is that’s unacceptable and unhelpful to the military relationship that we would like to have with them.”
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, called Tuesday’s intercept “a deeply concerning provocation.” He added: “What we’ve encouraged is constructive military-to-military ties with China. And this type of action clearly violates the spirit of that engagement.”
The two superpowers have a contentious relationship over security matters. While U.S. military officials acknowledge a strategic rivalry, they say they have tried to develop closer ties with the People’s Liberation Army leadership and maintain open lines of communication.
In June, for example, the Pentagon made a point of inviting the PLA to participate in its annual Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise off Hawaii, one of the largest multinational military exercises in the world.
China accepted, but tensions with the United States and its Asian allies have persisted. A few days before the Hawaii exercises, for example, Chinese fighter jets and Japanese military aircraft flew dangerously close to each other over the East China Sea.
The U.S. military routinely conducts air and naval patrols off the Chinese coast, in part to collect signals intelligence.
Although the Pentagon says it takes care to keep its planes and ships in international airspace and international waters, the practice has long irked the Chinese, who view those areas as part of their sphere of influence.