HONG KONG — A Chinese fighter jet flew dangerously close to a U.S. Air Force aircraft that was conducting routine operations over the contested South China Sea last week, the U.S. military said Thursday, forcing the American plane to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.
The incident reflects what the U.S. calls a concerning trend of unsafe intercept practices by the Chinese military.
The U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft was in international airspace on Dec. 21 when it was intercepted by a J-11 fighter jet from the Chinese navy, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement. The Chinese jet positioned itself about 10 feet from the RC-135’s wing and then drifted within 20 feet of its nose as the American plane maintained its course and speed, leading it to take evasive maneuvers.
“We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law,” the command said.
A spokesperson for the command said the U.S. would respond through the appropriate channels.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Thursday that the U.S. had long endangered China’s national security with its aerial and naval reconnaissance in the region and that Beijing would continue to take “necessary measures.”
“The provocative and dangerous actions of the U.S. are the root cause of maritime security issues,” he said at a regular news briefing.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and others. In recent years, China’s People’s Liberation Army has been increasingly assertive in the area, which has some of the world’s busiest commercial shipping lanes.
At a regional defense summit in Singapore in June, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said there had been “an alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA aircraft and vessels.”
Australia said a Chinese fighter pilot intercepted one of its military surveillance planes over the South China Sea in May, releasing chaff that entered the plane’s engine.
The following month, Canada accused the Chinese military of forcing Royal Canadian Air Force planes off their flight paths during United Nations-approved operations to monitor sanctions evasions by North Korea.
Such incidents raise concerns of another fatal collision like the one in 2001, when China held 24 crew members of a U.S. Navy spy plane for 10 days after it crashed with a Chinese fighter jet near the island province of Hainan, killing the pilot.
Austin also raised the issue at a meeting in November with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. The two men agreed at that meeting to improve U.S.-China military communication channels that were suspended after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi angered China with her August visit to Taiwan, a self-ruling island that Beijing claims as its own territory. China views such visits as de facto recognition of Taiwan’s independence.
At a news briefing on Thursday, Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said China attaches great importance to its military relationship with the U.S., and that working-level communication between the two militaries had not been interrupted.
“However, the U.S. cannot seek to fully resume dialogue and exchanges with China while continuously harming China’s interests,” he said.
China has intensified its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone since Pelosi’s visit, sending a record 71 warplanes toward the island in a single 24-hour period this week after President Joe Biden signed a defense spending bill that increased U.S. military support for Taiwan.
Separately, Japanese officials confirmed this week that there had been a rare sighting of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier group near Guam, a U.S. territory that has two military bases. The Global Times, a state-backed Chinese nationalist tabloid, said Thursday that the move “showed that the Chinese carrier is ready to defend the country against potential U.S. attacks launched from there, including military interference attempts over the Taiwan question.”
In an email on Friday, deputy public affairs officer Lt. Kristina Wiedemann said the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet closely tracks all vessels in its area of operations, which includes Guam, “to ensure security and stability of the region.”
Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong, and Mosheh Gains reported from Washington.