A Chinese fighter jet flew within six metres (20 feet) of a United States Air Force surveillance plane over the hotly contested South China Sea earlier this month, the US military said on Thursday.
On December 21, a Chinese J-11 fighter pilot performed an “unsafe” manoeuvre during an intercept of a US Air Force RC-135 aircraft, according to the US Indo-Pacific Command, which also released a video clip of the incident.
Footage of the encounter shows the Chinese jet fighter flying within several metres of the nose of the much larger surveillance plane, a manoeuvre which the US said had forced its pilot to take “evasive” measures to avoid a collision.
The US said its aircraft was flying “lawfully” while conducting routine operations in international airspace.
“The US Indo-Pacific Joint Force is dedicated to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and will continue to fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” the US military said in a statement.
“We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law,” the statement added.
In recent months, Chinese warplane pilots have been accused of flying dangerously close to aircraft, notably of several US allies, patrolling geopolitically sensitive locations in the region.
In June, Canada accused China of harassing its aircraft which were conducting United Nations sanctions patrols along the North Korean border. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the reports “extremely troubling” at the time.
Australia also alleged a Chinese fighter jet “dangerously” intercepted an Australian military surveillance plane in May. The alleged encounters occurred on April 26 and May 26.
A US military spokesperson told The New York Times that the most recent intercept by a Chinese jet occurred amid an “alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA [People’s Liberation Army] aircraft and vessels”.
“So 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,” the spokesperson said.
A day after the alleged airborne encounter, US officials said they were “closely” monitoring China’s military activities in the region.
“We continue to oppose any military pressure or coercion against our Allies and partners in the region,” the US Indo-Pacific Command said in a separate statement.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite a 2016 international court ruling that Beijing’s claims had no merit. The US has also dismissed China’s claims on the resource-rich waters.
Nevertheless, China has forged ahead with building artificial islands and establishing a military presence in the disputed sea. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also lay claim to portions of the South China Sea.
In 2015, a defiant Xi Jinping, said that the South China Sea had been controlled by China “since ancient times”, although the claim is historically disputed.
The dangerous airspace encounter unfolded just weeks after China alleged that a US missile cruiser “illegally intruded” into waters near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The US Navy denied the reports, describing the Chinese statement as “false”. China has previously deemed US naval patrols of the Taiwan Strait as a “security risk.”
Last week, China and Russia held joint naval exercises to “deepen” the two countries’ military partnership in the East China Sea.