The Pentagon announced this week that two Chinese fighter jets may have conducted an unsafe intercept of a U.S. surveillance place on September 15. The announcement came just as Chinese President Xi Jinping began his highly anticipated first state visit to the United States.
The U.S. Department of Defense was not nearly concerned by this incident as it was by another intercept in August 2014, which U.S. defense officials denounced at the time as “dangerous.” In the incident last year, the Pentagon accused a Chinese fighter jet of having come within 20 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft, then doing a barrel roll over the top of the U.S. plane.
The September 15 intercept saw two of China’s JH-7 fighters cross roughly 500 feet in front of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 surveillance aircraft, according to USNI News. Both planes were flying in international airspace over the Yellow Sea, roughly 80 miles off of China’s Shandong peninsula.
Pentagon spokesman Bill Urban told USNI News that the Pentagon was still gathering information on the incident, and that “no final characterization of the intercept has been determined at this time.” It was the crew of the RC-135 that described the intercept as “unsafe,” not the Pentagon itself. Urban also stressed that “at this point there is no indication that there was a ‘near collision’.”
After the August 2014 incident, the Obama administration placed an emphasis on establishing rules to govern unexpected aerial encounters between their militaries. In 2001, a collision between a U.S. EP-3 aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet wrecked both planes and killed the Chinese pilot. The U.S. and China can ill afford a repeat of the “Hainan Incident.”
Obama and Xi announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) On the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters during their summit in November 2014. However, the annex guiding air-to-air encounters was still under negotiations for much of this year.
On Thursday, at a regular monthly press conference, Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Wu Qian told reporters that China and the United States have finalized the “Annex of the Rules of Behavior for Air-to-Air Encounters.” He said the official signing took place on September 18.
Wu described the general contents of the annex:
It mainly specifies the rules of behavior for the pilots to maintain flight safety during air-to-air encounters between military aircraft, as well specifying basic principles for communications, rules for establishing or announcing specially designated areas such as danger areas or warning areas, peacetime security assurance measures, [and] rules for emergency on-scene coordination.
“The signing of these two annexes marks new progress in the establishment of the two confidence-building mechanisms,” Wu said, referring to the MOU on air-to-air encounters as well as a separate agreement for the two sides to notify each other of major military activities. “This is also a practical measure … of positive significance to enhancing strategic mutual trust, and avoiding misunderstanding and miscalculation as well as maritime and air incidents.”
Not everyone was so upbeat. U.S. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the “dangerous Chinese intercept of a U.S. aircraft last week shows that China feels emboldened to continue its pattern of aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific region.” He added that the timing of the intercept, coming as the two sides finalized negotiations on the rules for aerial encounters, “raises further questions about China’s intentions and the Obama Administration’s response thus far.”
But Pentagon spokesman Urban told USNI News that things are getting better: “Over the past year, we have seen improvements in PRC behavior, specifically the safety and professionalism with which they intercept our aircraft.”