Editor’s note: A version of this story appears in CNN’s Now in China newsletter, updated 3 times a week, and explores what you need to know about China’s rise and its impact on the world. Sign up here.
A Chinese fighter jet intercepting a U.S. Air Force surveillance plane in the South China Sea last month should be seen as a potential warning that things can easily and quickly go horribly wrong — adding to a deadly military confrontation between the U.S. and China risks of. Analysts say two forces.
The incident occurred on December 21 in the northern part of the South China Sea, which the United States says is international airspace.
Performing what the U.S. military considers an “unsafe maneuver,” a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter jet flew within 20 feet of the nose of a U.S. RC-135 Rivet Joint, an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft carrying about 30 people, The U.S. will be forced to take “evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision,” according to a Dec. 28 statement from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
It released a video of the incident showing the Chinese fighter jet flying to the left and slightly above the four-engined U.S. jet, similar to Boeing 707 airliners of the 1960s and 70s, before closing in on its nose and away.
The Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army gave a different interpretation of the encounter in a report on China Military Online, saying that the U.S. fighter plane “suddenly changed its flight attitude and forced the Chinese plane to turn left.”
“Such a dangerous approach action has seriously affected the flight safety of Chinese military aircraft,” it said.
It released its own video of the incident, shot from a fighter jet, that appears to show the RC-135 approaching and moving behind the fighter jet.
CNN contacted aviation and military experts who viewed the two videos and said the Chinese jet appeared to be all wrong and there was no reason for it to come as close to the U.S. aircraft as it did.
“The 135 is a large, slow, unmaneuverable aircraft in international airspace. The approaching small, The onus is on the fast, maneuverable plane to stay awake and not cause problems for both planes. ”
“The purpose of the intercept was presumably to visually identify the aircraft, and the fighters could have stayed miles away and done that. There was no benefit to getting closer,” he said.
Robert Hopkins, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who flew similar surveillance planes, also disputed China’s explanation of events.
“(China’s) response is far from reality and is fiction. An unarmed airliner-sized aircraft is not going to actively transform into a nimble armed fighter,” Hopkins said.
But Hopkins also said the U.S. military risked exaggerating events, saying the U.S. jet had to take “evasive action,” a term he described as “too dramatic.”
“It’s no different than a driver adjusting his position to avoid an impromptu intrusion into a lane by an adjacent driver,” Hopkins said. “The U.S. response was purely dramatic and unnecessarily created an exaggerated sense of danger.”
But while the incident itself was handled safely by U.S. pilots, experts agree that the distance between the U.S. and Chinese aircraft in the video is so small that there is little room for error.
“It’s generally not safe for planes to approach each other at 500 miles per hour,” said Blake Hessinger, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on Indo-Pacific defense policy.
“At that scale, an unexpected operational or equipment problem could lead to a horrific accident in a fraction of a second,” Hezinger said.
Hezinger said the current state of U.S.-China military relations meant that an accident could quickly turn into an armed confrontation.
“It’s worth remembering that the PLA has effectively disrupted any kind of hotline or discussion forum to resolve a potential incident with the U.S. If the intercept does go wrong, senior officials have fewer options than ever to limit potential escalations,” he said. Say.
Layton pointed to another potential danger that could lead to escalation. It can be seen from the US video that Chinese fighter jets are equipped with air-to-air missiles.
“The 135 was an unarmed aircraft. Why did the PLA Navy feel it was necessary to intercept the missiles it was carrying for the purpose of visually identifying the aircraft? Doing so is potentially dangerous and could lead to a major tragic event,” Layton said.
But at a regular news briefing on Friday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said the incident was just the latest in a series of provocative actions by the United States that threatened stability in the region.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “I want to point out that for a long time, the United States has frequently dispatched aircraft and ships to conduct close-in reconnaissance against China, posing a serious threat to China’s national security.”
China’s Southern Theater Command said U.S. surveillance planes were flying “near China’s southern coastline and the Paracel Islands” — known in the West as the Paracel Islands — where Beijing has established military installations.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the RC-135 was in international airspace and “conducting lawful and routine operations.”
China claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including many distant islands and inlets to disputed waters, many of which Beijing has militarized.
The United States does not recognize these territorial claims and regularly conducts operations there, including freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea.
“The US’s provocative and dangerous actions are the root of maritime security issues. China urges the US to stop such dangerous provocative actions and stop accusing China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Yi said.
But Washington has been targeting China in these interceptions that go back decades.
The most notorious incident occurred in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American surveillance plane near Hainan Island in the northern South China Sea, leading to a major crisis in which the Chinese pilot was killed and the damaged American plane barely landed safely in China territory. After 11 days of intense negotiations, the American crew was released.
After a series of incidents last year involving Chinese warplanes intercepting U.S. and allied aircraft, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the PLA’s escalating operations “should concern us all.”
Layton said he believed Beijing may have been trying to provoke the U.S. military last month and recorded it.
“There is no benefit to the fighter jet flying so close besides creating an accident – this was easily recorded by the high-quality cameras that the fighter crew happened to have and was using. Although rather risky, the Chinese navy appears to have orchestrated the incident, “He said.