The American and Chinese militaries have released conflicting accounts of what both sides said was an unsafe and unprofessional air encounter over the South China Sea, in the latest example of competition in the information space.
The Hawaii-based US Indo-Pacific Command published footage last Thursday showing a Chinese navy J-11 warplane intercepting a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, which was “lawfully conducting routine operations” on December 21 in international airspace.
“The [People’s Liberation Army Navy] 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,” the statement said. The accompanying video showed both aircraft coming closer together before veering further apart.
China’s response came on Saturday. In a defense ministry statement attributed to the PLA’s Southern Theater Command, it said the US had “deliberately misled public opinion.”
The US Air Force’s RC-135 “conducted intentional close-in reconnaissance in the vicinity of China’s southern coastline and the Xisha Islands,” it said, using the Chinese term for the disputed Paracel Islands, which are controlled by Beijing but also claimed by Vietnam. .
The PLA Navy’s J-11 was sent to intercept the American plane, the statement said. “During the process, disregarding repeated warnings from the Chinese pilot, the US aircraft abruptly changed its flight attitude and forced the Chinese aircraft to the left.”
The Chinese video of the incident showed both aircraft closing in on each other before diverging again. Neither clip appeared to conclusively back Washington or Beijing’s version of events, although much nimbler fast jets are generally expected to exercise more caution in such instances.
In 2022, the US and its allies began painting a picture of a Chinese military that was wildly audacious in asserting Beijing’s territorial claims, to the point of risking accidents.
In February, a Chinese warship fired a high-power laser at an Australian reconnaissance aircraft while sailing off northern Australia, Canberra said. In May, one of China’s J-16 fighters intercepted an Australian military plane over the South China Sea and released radar-jamming metal chaff that entered its engine.
Separately, Ottawa accused Chinese military jets of harassing Canadian planes in the East China Sea, where they had been deployed to enforce UN sanctions on North Korea.
In each of the cases, Beijing defended the behavior of its forces as professional and safe. China’s foreign ministry said its pilots had “exercised maximum restraint” in light of what it called constant reconnaissance off the Chinese coast.
In recent months, the potentially hazardous air and sea encounters, which could trigger an accidental conflict amid rising tensions, were raised in private meetings between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart. The Biden administration has also spent two years reestablishing crisis communication hotlines with Beijing.
Both sides will be eager to avoid a repeat of the Hainan Island incident of 2001, when a US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese J-8 jet, resulting in the loss of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, who was notorious for ” cowboy maneuvers.”
The interception of US planes by potential adversaries—and vice versa—has remained a common practice since the Cold War and serious incidents like the one off Hainan two decades ago are exceedingly rare.
“Military aircraft interactions occur throughout the world on a regular basis. The majority of these interactions are safe and professional, to include interactions between the US and the PLA,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Martin Meiners.
“When these interactions are unsafe, the US responds through appropriate diplomatic and military channels. We have communication channels to discuss encounters with the PLA military that we are concerned with, such as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement mechanism. We intend to do so in this case,” he said Newsweek.
For policymakers, however, the release of details about otherwise classified military operations serves public affairs and public diplomacy purposes, indicating to domestic and foreign audiences the principles behind each mission as well as the associated risks. As Ukraine’s proactive intelligence disclosures have shown, winning the narrative war is key to securing international support.
As the US and China compete across multiple domains, control of the information space is becoming increasingly important. In the hotly contested South China Sea, for instance, Washington continues to assert freedom of navigation and overflight, while Beijing seeks an end to the American military presence in the region.
“As Secretary Austin has stated, we have seen an alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA aircraft and vessels. This latest incident reflects a concerning trend of unsafe and dangerous intercept practices by the PLA that are of grave concern to the United States,” said Meiners.
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Update 1/2/23, 10:20 am ET: This article was updated to include a response from the Department of Defense.