A Chinese fighter jet conducted what U.S. military officials called an aggressive midair intercept of an American surveillance plane as it flew over the South China Sea on Friday, the latest in a series of incidents in the region between the two powers.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees military operations in Asia, said the incident involved a Chinese J-16 and an Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane that was flying in international airspace. The military published video Tuesday of what it called an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” that caused turbulence for the U.S. crew onboard the RC-135. The footage shows the Chinese J-16 moving directly in front of the U.S. plane, causing it to shudder as it flew through the fighter’s jet wash.
The U.S. did not specify where the reconnaissance plane was flying—only that it was above the South China Sea, where Beijing has made territorial claims over resource-rich shoals that neighboring nations also claim. “The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate—safely and responsibly—wherever international law allows, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” the military said in a statement. “We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law.”
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The episode marks at least the third time since December that Chinese jets buzzed U.S. military planes over the South China Sea. Incidents in December and February also forced Washington to register the protest with Beijing.
The dustup comes during a tense period between the two nations that included a public spat over a Chinese spy balloon transiting over American airspace. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has repeatedly attempted to speak with China’s defense minister, General Li Shangfu, in recent months only to be rebuffed. Austin is now at the outset of a weeklong trip through Asia, with stops planned in India, Japan, and Singapore, where is slated to give what’s being billed as a major speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a three-day long conference.
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“The U.S. is clear about the reason why China-U.S. military dialogue faces difficulties,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters on Tuesday. “The U.S. should earnestly respect China’s sovereignty, security and interest concerns, immediately correct wrong practice, show sincerity and create necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between Chinese and U.S. militaries.”
The Biden Administration has labeled Beijing a “pacing challenge” that holds the potential to reshape the international order. The Pentagon’s budget request includes a 40% increase for the Administration’s so-called Pacific Defense Initiative, which aims to counter China’s military expansion in the Pacific region. And yet the two nations have limited military and diplomatic interactions with one another—a situation that hasn’t improved since China flew its spy balloon across the continental U.S.