Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.
The interception of a US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft by a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea last month should be taken as a potential warning about how easily and quickly things can go horribly wrong – raising the risk of a deadly military confrontation between the two powers, analysts say.
The incident in question occurred Dec. 21 over the northern part of the South China Sea in what the United States calls international airspace.
Executing what the US military considered a ‘dangerous maneuver’, a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter jet flew within 20 feet of the nose of a US RC-135 Rivet Joint, an unidentified reconnaissance aircraft. armed with about 30 people on board, forcing the US plane to perform “evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision”, according to a statement from the US Indo-Pacific Command issued on December 28.
He posted a video of the incident showing the Chinese fighter flying to the left and slightly above the American four-jet, similar to the Boeing 707 jetliners of the 1960s and 1970s, then gradually closing in on its nose before moving away. . .
The People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command, in a report on China Military Online, had a different interpretation of the encounter, saying it was the American plane that “suddenly changed its flight attitude and forced the Chinese plane to the left”.
“Such a dangerous approach maneuver seriously affected the flight safety of the Chinese military aircraft,” he said.
He released his own video of the incident, filmed from the fighter jet, which appeared to show the RC-135 closing in on and behind the fighter.
Aviation and military experts contacted by CNN who watched the two videos said it appeared the Chinese plane was dead wrong and had no reason to approach as close as it did to the American aircraft.
“The 135 was in international airspace and is a large, slow, unmaneuverable aircraft. It is the responsibility of the smaller, faster, maneuverable aircraft approaching to stay clear, not to cause havoc. problem to both planes,” said Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer, now at the Griffith Asia Institute.
“The intent of the intercept was presumably to visually identify the aircraft and the fighter could have stayed several miles away and performed that task. Getting closer brings no gain,” he said.
Robert Hopkins, a retired US Air Force officer who flew similar reconnaissance aircraft, also pushed back against the Chinese interpretation of events.
“The (Chinese) answer is so far removed from reality that it is fictional. An unarmed jetliner the size of an airliner does not aggressively transform into an agile armed fighter,” Hopkins said.
But Hopkins also said the US military risked blowing the incident by saying the US plane had to perform ‘evasive maneuvers’, a term he called ‘too dramatic’ .
“It’s no different than a driver adjusting their position to avoid a temporary incursion into the lane by an adjacent driver,” Hopkins said. “The US response is pure theater and creates an unnecessarily exaggerated sense of danger.”
But while the incident itself was safely handled by the American pilots, experts agreed that the small distance between the American and Chinese planes evident in the videos leaves little room for error.
“Flying planes in close proximity to each other at 500 miles per hour with hostile intent is generally dangerous,” said Blake Herzinger, nonresident scholar and Indo-Pacific defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“At this distance, an unexpected maneuver or equipment problem can cause a terrible crash in less than a second,” Herzinger said.
And Herzinger said the current state of US-China military relations means the crashes could quickly turn into armed confrontation.
“It should be recalled that the PLA effectively destroyed any type of hotlines or chat rooms to deal with potential incidents with the United States. If an interception goes awry, there are fewer options than ever for senior officers to limit potential escalation,” he said.
Layton pointed to another potential danger that could lead to an escalation. As seen in the American video, the Chinese plane is armed with air-to-air missiles.
“The 135 is an unarmed aircraft. Why does the PLAN consider it necessary to intercept carrier missiles when the intention was to visually identify the aircraft? Doing this is potentially dangerous and could lead to a major and tragic incident,” Layton said.
But at a regular press briefing on Friday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the incident was just the latest in a series of US provocations that threaten stability in the region.
“Let me point out that for a long time, the United States has frequently deployed aircraft and ships for close reconnaissance of China, which poses a serious danger to China’s national security,” the carrier said. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
The Chinese Southern Theater Command said the US reconnaissance aircraft was flying “close to China’s southern coast and the Xisha Islands” – known in the West as the Paracels – where Beijing has built military installations.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the RC-135 was in international airspace and “legally conducting routine operations”.
China claims nearly all of the vast South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including numerous remote islands and coves in the disputed body of water, many of which have been militarized by Beijing.
The United States does not recognize these territorial claims and regularly conducts operations there, including freedom of navigation operations across the South China Sea.
“The provocative and dangerous actions of the United States are at the root of maritime security problems. China urges the United States to end these dangerous provocations and stop blaming China,” Wang from the Foreign Ministry said.
But Washington has consistently pointed the finger at China in these interceptions, which date back decades.
In the most infamous incident of 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American reconnaissance aircraft near the island of Hainan in the northern South China Sea, resulting in a major crisis while that the Chinese pilot was killed and the damaged American plane barely managed to land safely. Chinese territory. The American crew was released after 11 days of intense negotiations.
After a series of incidents last year involving interceptions of US and allied aircraft by Chinese fighter jets, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said PLA actions were escalating and ” should worry us all.”
Layton said he thinks Beijing may have tried to provoke the US military last month and put it on video.
“There was no possible gain for the fighter flying so close except to create an incident – which was easily recorded on a high quality video camera that the fighter crew owned and used. The incident looks very good planned by the PLAN, even if it is rather risky,” he said.