China conducted a “dangerous” intercept of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane this week, the Pentagon announced on Friday.
“On the 19th of August, an armed Chinese fighter jet conducted a dangerous intercept of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft, patrol aircraft, that was on a routine mission. The intercept took place about 135 miles east of Hainan Island, in international airspace,” Admiral John Kirby, the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense, told reporters at a press conference on Friday.
Kirby elaborated on the incident, saying that the Chinese jet: “crossed under the aircraft with one pass having only 50-100 feet separation. The Chinese jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at 90 degrees with its belly toward the P-8 Poseidon, we believe to make a point of showing its weapons load-out. And then they flew directly under and alongside the P-8, bringing their wingtips, as I said, to within 20 feet. And then conducted a roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet.”
The Pentagon spokesman said that the U.S. had registered an official complaint with China through regular diplomatic channels. He also said that the Chinese pilot’s actions had been “unprofessional, it’s unsafe, and it is certainly not keeping with the kind of military-to-military relationship” that U.S. seeks to establish with China.
While certainly provocative and dangerous, the incident is fairly typical behavior from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Just last December, a PLA Navy amphibious vessel cut across the bow of the USS Cowpens while it was observing a Chinese military drill in international waters in the South China Sea. The crew of the USS Cowpens had to maneuver to avoid colliding with the Chinese vessel.
Even more similar to the events of this week, back in 2001 two J-8 PLA fighters conducted a dangerous intercept of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane—the predecessor of the P-8 Poseidon—while the plane was gathering surveillance in international airspace also off of Hainan Island.
In that case, one of the J-8 pilots was so aggressive that the EP-3 was unable to avoid colliding with the PLA jet. The Chinese pilot died in the collision while the 24 U.S. crew members from the EP-3 made an emergency landing in China where they were held by Chinese authorities for over a week. China demanded an apology from the U.S. before agreeing to release the crew members.
These provocative measures are presumably China’s way of protesting the U.S. military conducting surveillance operations within its Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ). China has long called upon the U.S. to stop conducting these operations within its EEZs. The U.S. maintains that these operations are consistent with international law. In an example of those “contradictions” the PRC is famous for, China agrees with America’s interpretation of international law on this issue, and indeed conducts its own surveillance operations in other countries’ EEZs, including the United States itself. Still, China maintains that other countries gathering intelligence in its EEZ is illegal because of its domestic laws.