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The interception of a United States Air Force reconnaissance jet by a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea last month should be seen as a potential warning of how easily, and quickly things can go terribly wrong – raising the risk of a deadly military confrontation between the two powers, analysts say.
The incident in question occurred on December 21 over the northern part of the South China Sea in what the US says was international airspace.
Performing what the US military deemed an “unsafe maneuver,” a Chinese navy J-11 fighter jet flew within 20 feet of the nose of a US RC-135 Rivet Joint, an unarmed reconnaissance plane with about 30 people on board, forcing the US plane to take “evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision,” according to a statement from the US Indo-Pacific Command issued on December 28.
It released a video of the incident showing the Chinese fighter flying to the left of and slightly above the four-engine US jet, similar to the Boeing 707 airliners of the 1960s and ’70s, and then gradually closing closer to 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 US jet that “abruptly changed its flight attitude and forced the Chinese aircraft to the left.”
“Such a dangerous approaching maneuver seriously affected the flight safety of the Chinese military aircraft,” it said.
It released its own video of the incident, shot from the fighter jet, that appeared to show the RC-135 moving closer to and behind the fighter.
Aviation and military experts contacted by CNN who watched the two videos said it appeared the Chinese jet was firmly in the wrong and had no reason to get as close as it did to the American plane.
“The 135 was in international airspace and is a large, slow, non-maneuverable aircraft. It is the responsibility of the approaching smaller, fast, maneuverable aircraft to stay clear, not to cause a problem for both aircraft,” said Peter Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer, now with the Griffith Asia Institute.
“The intent of the interception was presumably to visually identify the aircraft and the fighter could have stayed several miles away and competed that task. Getting closer brings no gains,” he said.
Robert Hopkins, a retired US Air Force officer who flew similar reconnaissance jets, also pushed back at the Chinese interpretation of events.
“The (Chinese) response is so far divorced from reality that it is fictional. An unarmed, airliner-sized aircraft does not aggressively turn into a nimble armed fighter,” said Hopkins.
But Hopkins also said the US military risked blowing the incident out of proportion in saying the US jet had to take “evasive maneuvers,” a term he described as “overly dramatic.”
“These are no different than a driver adjusting her position to avoid a temporary lane incursion by an adjacent driver,” Hopkins said. “The US response is pure theater and needlessly creates an exaggerated sense of danger.”
But while the incident itself was safely manged by the US pilots, experts agreed the small distance between the US and Chinese planes evident in the videos leaves little room for error.
“Flying aircraft close to each other at 500 miles per hour with unfriendly intentions is generally unsafe,” said Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow and Indo-Pacific defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“At that range, an unexpected maneuver or an equipment issue can cause a terrible accident in under a second,” Herzinger said.
And Herzinger said the current state of US-China military relations means accidents could quickly turn into armed confrontation.
“It’s worth remembering that the PLA has effectively wrecked any kind of hotlines or discussion forums for addressing potential incidents with the United States. If an intercept does go wrong, there are fewer options than ever for senior officers to limit potential escalation,” he said.
Layton pointed out another potential danger that could lead to escalation. As seen in the US video, the Chinese aircraft is armed with air-to-air missiles.
“The 135 is an unarmed aircraft. Why does the PLAN consider it necessary to intercept carrying missiles when the intent was to visually identify the aircraft? Doing this is potentially dangerous and could lead to a major and tragic incident,” Layton said.
But in a regular press briefing on Friday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the incident was just the latest in a string of US provocations that threaten stability in the region.
“Let me point out that for a long time, the US has frequently deployed aircraft and vessels for close-in reconnaissance on China, which poses a serious danger to China’s national security,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.
The Chinese Southern Theater Command said the US reconnaissance jet was flying “in the vicinity of China’s southern coastline and the Xisha Islands” – known in the West as the Paracels – where Beijing has built up military installations.
The US Indo-Pacfic Command said the RC-135 was in international airspace and was “lawfully conducting routine operations.”
China claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including many of distant islands and inlets in the disputed body of water, many of which Beijing has militarized.
The US does not recognize these territorial claims and routinely conducts operations there, including freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea.
“The US’s provocative and dangerous moves are the root cause of maritime security issues. China urges the US to stop such dangerous provocations, and stop deflecting blame on China,” the Foreign Ministry’s Wang said.
But Washington has consistently pointed the finger back at China in these intercepts, which date back decades.
In the most infamous incident in 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US reconnaissance plane near Hainan Island in the northern South China Sea, leading to a major crisis as the Chinese pilot was killed and the damaged US plane barely managed a safe landing on Chinese territory. The US crew was released after 11 days of intense negotiations.
After a string of incidents last year involving intercepts of US and allied aircraft by Chinese warplanes, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the PLA’s actions were escalating and “should worry us all.”
Layton said he thinks Beijing may have been trying to provoke the US military last month, and get it on video.
“There was no possible gain by the fighter flying so close except to create an incident – that was handily recorded on a high quality video camera the fighter’s crew just happened to have and be using. The incident seems very well planned by the PLAN, if rather risky,” he said.