A Chinese fighter jet flew dangerously close to a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea on Dec. 21, the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) said Thursday.
A Chinese Navy (PLAN) J-11 fighter jet intercepted the U.S.-operated RC-135 Rivet Joint performing a routine intelligence gathering operation in the waters off China’s southeast coast, according to a statement from the U.S. military. A video shows the two aircraft flying within 20 feet of one another as the American plane maintained its speed and trajectory, but it was “unlikely” the PLAN warplane could have sustained a safe visual distance from the U.S. plane, an official told CNN.
“The PLAN pilot flew an unsafe maneuver by flying in front of and within 20 feet of the nose of the RC-135, forcing the RC-135 to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision,” INDOPACOM said.
The U.S. intended to address the incident with Beijing through diplomatic and military communication channels, the official told CNN. While most interactions between U.S. and Chinese aircraft do not pose a danger to either party, the Dec. 21 event warranted a stronger response.
China broke off normal diplomatic and military communications with Washington in August in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The foreign ministry in October said it was open to future military communications, but the U.S. would have to commit to respecting Beijing’s “red lines,” according to Reuters.
The American plane carried 30 passengers and was larger and heavier than the PLAN jet, according to CNN.
China slammed the U.S. response to the incident. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the U.S. practice of conducting “close-in” reconnaissance missions on China “poses a serious danger to China’s national security” in a statement Friday.
He urged the U.S. to cease “such dangerous provocations, and stop deflecting blame on China.”
INDOPACOM claimed the spying mission took place over international airspace, and it would continue to operate in the South China Sea “with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law.”
China claims large swaths of the South China Sea below Taiwan as part of its territory, including the waters encompassing a number of smaller islands where Beijing has staged military bases, according to CNN.
The U.S. conducts regular freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea, transiting with warships to reinforce international laws guaranteeing passage through the disputed waters. China opposes the U.S. military presence in the region and intercepts U.S. assets in a manner deemed unsafe on an increasingly frequent basis.
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